Thursday, April 24, 2008

Email and Your M.D.

Among American doctors, less than a third use email as a health care tool. Alicia Chang of the Associate Press takes a look at this strange deficiency:

"People are able to file their taxes online, buy and sell household goods, and manage their financial accounts," said Susannah Fox of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "The health care industry seems to be lagging behind other industries."

Doctors have their reasons for not hitting the reply button more often. Some worry it will increase their workload, and most physicians don't get reimbursed for it by insurance companies. Others fear hackers could compromise patient privacy — even though doctors who do e-mail generally do it through password-protected Web sites.

Once again, we see an example of how embracing Internet technology, even in its most basic form, can improve the overall health care crisis our nation faces. The studies available state that not only is response time quicker from doctors who use email, but it also helps to reduce costly office visits and repeated phone calls.

For example, a 2007 University of Pittsburgh study published in the journal Pediatrics followed 121 families who e-mailed their doctors. Researchers found 40 percent of e-mails were sent after business hours and only about 6 percent were urgent. Doctors received on average about one e-mail a day and responded 57 percent faster than by telephone.

A separate study by health care giant Kaiser Permanente published in the American Journal of Managed Care last year found patients who used its secure Web system were 7 to 10 percent less likely to schedule an office visit. Patients also made 14 percent fewer phone calls than those who did not use the online services.

In Chang's article she adds a human face to the equation: Suzanne Kreuziger, R.N. Kreuziger works for a doctor who chooses not to utilize email. Kreuziger stresses the ability to have a documented virtual paper trail that she can go back to at any point as a key element of why email can be such an incredibly useful tool for both physicians and patients. Being able to simplify basic needs such as asking for prescription refills, setting appointments, and getting medical test results would be a boon to all involved.

She also points out that the complaint on the part of providers that time spent emailing is not billable seems to hold little water as phone calls are also not billable, and take a greater amount of time in most cases. Chang provides a wonderful look at this minor but important aspect of American health care.
It's not the first time the medical field has been slow to embrace technology. When the first telephones became widely available in the late 1800s, doctors were concerned about being swamped with calls.
Would YOU like to be able to communicate with your doctor via email? Share your thoughts.

SOURCE: "It's no LOL: Few US doctors answer e-mails from patients" 04/22/08
photo courtesy of Mzelle Biscotte, used according to its Creative Commons license

1 comment:

  1. I think the key here is being able to distinguish e-mail from e-visits. Clearly, providing physicians and patients with a quicker, less expensive, anytime option for basic exchanges of information is ideal and makes e-mail a much better solution. But, if they get caught in the mix of trying to provide information and diagnosis via e-mail (i.e., an e-visit) then there are safety, clinical, and revenue issues to address.

    I have to believe there is some type of NLP (natural language processing) or other filter that could be applied to treat such exchanges differently.



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