Emailing Patients: Profitable? Yes -- Here's How

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LMSW

Disclosures

June 13, 2012

In This Article

Watch Out for Malpractice Risks

"The legal risks of emails are formidable," states Nahra.

By contrast, in its statement called "Making the Most of Physician-Patient Email," the California Academy of Family Physicians (CAFP) suggests that because email reduces gaps in care, email actually can reduce, rather than increase, liability risk.

Kvedar adds that there is no greater risk in email than in any other form of patient-physician communication. "We make mistakes in person and over the phone as well."

But because email is in written form and is essentially a "paper trail," it is important to be much more exact. "Word your emails carefully," Kvedar warns.

"Make sure you include phrases such as 'Given the information I have in your email, this is how I'm thinking.' This highlights that you're not dealing with a physical exam but with words on a computer screen."

And be careful with your advice. McCarberg says, "We have been told never to give advice that could be medicolegally damaging. For example, never assume that chest pain is just an innocuous cough. Some things must be handled in person."

A more serious potential risk is that increasingly sophisticated software makes it possible to calculate how much time you have devoted to a given email -- the duration between receipt of email and response to it and how long you looked at the screen and scrolled down. "Computerized communication had better be accompanied by tort reform, or this potential for increased scrutiny will make it impossible to practice medicine," declares Samuel Bierstock, MD, Founder and President of Champions in Healthcare, a healthcare IT consulting group in Delray Beach, Florida.

An additional concern is that emails might get lost or deleted prior to receipt of the intended party. For this reason, CAFP's statement advises that providers request an autoreply from patients to acknowledge receipt of the message.

A Valuable Way to Grow Your Practice

For physicians looking to increase their patient roster and gain a competitive advantage, emailing patients may be the ticket. According to a Harris Interactive Poll, 90% of individuals with email access want to communicate with their physician over email, and 56% indicate that having the ability to do so would influence their choice of physician.[1]

A study of 121 families who used email to contact their pediatricians found that participants appreciated the increased access to the pediatrician and felt that it improved quality of care, as reported in Pediatrics in 2007.[2] Representative participant statements included "Email brings the doctor into our home" and "I don't have to worry about missing a phone call." Email is also especially helpful when patients or physicians are traveling and time-zone differences make it difficult to connect by phone.

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