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

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LMSW

Disclosures

June 13, 2012

In This Article

8 Tips for Successful Physician-Patient Emailing

Several organizations, including CAFP, and numerous experts interviewed by Medscape have provided tips for maximizing the effectiveness and efficiency of emails and mitigating potential medicolegal issues.

Tip 1: Set Clear Terms

"Setting clear terms should reduce patients' monopolizing a physician's time by sending more emails than appropriate," says McGraw.

This is what Warshowsky does: "I go over email instructions with each patient -- restrictions, length, confidentiality, and complexity."

McGraw urges providers to put their terms in writing. "That way, everyone is on the same page. Lay out how often you're willing to receive emails, how long it will take you to respond, and what does and doesn't constitute appropriate subjects for email. Also emphasize that email is never to be used in an emergency."

Tip 2: Use Office Staff Effectively

Emailing with patients should not be an excuse for your practice to make you the "first responder" to all questions. "My nurse receives all medically related emails that arrive at the office," reports Salob. "Most are of a routine nature, so there are very few that I have to handle."

Determining who will triage emails isn't enough; you should also decide who will print and place messages in the patients' charts.

Tip 3: Minimize Liability

Indemnify your practice for loss of information due to technical failures, CAFP advises. And be sure to verify your malpractice carrier's policy on physician-patient email coverage and follow any additional recommendations they may offer.

Tip 4: Inform Patients of Your Email Policies

You can do this either in writing or verbally. If verbally, document the discussion in the patient's chart. Consider including your email policies on your practice's Website. Issues to cover with patients are:

  • Never use email for urgent matters;

  • Ordinary email is not a secure form of communication;

  • Is the patient's email shared or private?;

  • When and how to escalate to phone calls and office visits;

  • Who else in your practice might be reading the emails;

  • Types of permissible transactions (eg, prescription refills, appointment scheduling) and nature of subject matter (eg, lab results, general medical issues);

  • Number and length of emails that you will read;

  • Response time;

  • Request that patients confirm receipt of your email;

  • Instruct patients to put topic of their email in the subject line; and

  • Instruct patients to identify themselves with their first and last name, as email addresses are very often not name based.

Tip 5: Protect Patient Privacy

Kvedar advises using Internet-based healthcare communication systems (eg, encryption or secure patient portal) as the best way to secure patient privacy. Additional measures to take, according to CAFP, are to use password-protected screensavers for all desktop workstations at home and at work. And try to avoid emailing patients to shared accounts or to nonprivate computers, such as at their offices if their e-mail is considered not private, or those in public libraries.

Tip 6: Document Everything!

Place all email communications in the patient's paper or electronic chart, and be sure to document all discussions you have with your patients about email procedures.

Email can be fraught with possibilities for misunderstandings, so be sensitive about your tone, Bierstock advises. And don't use slang or medical terminology that laypeople won't understand.

Never release your patients' email addresses to third parties, and double-check all "To" and "Cc" fields before sending emails. It's all too easy to make mistakes.

Tip 7: Use Email Only With Established Patients

"There must be an already established relationship, built over time, face to face, hands-on," AAFP's Mitchell emphasizes. Email can never be a forum for building a new patient relationship.

Tip 8: Assess Whether It's Working

Any system must be reviewed regularly to determine whether it is accomplishing its intended goal and where it is falling short. Systems may need to be tweaked accordingly. CAFP advises regularly assessing whether emails contribute to provider satisfaction.

Although emailing patients requires advance preparation and the development of clear policies, you may find that it can make communication with patients easier and ultimately streamline your workflow.

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