Thoughts on Patient-Physician Email (Part 1)

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I'm a believer in patient-physician email communication. Let's face it -- just about every profession has enthusiastically adopted email as a rapid, non-interrupting, easily documented form of communication -- so why hasn't medicine?

There are many reasons. Here are just a few:

1. Physicians -- particularly older physicians -- may simply not use email. A recent study showed that less than half of physicians use email for medicial practice.

2. Physicians may fear providing patients easy access to them through email. Some providers I've spoken to worry that their inboxes will be filled with long, nonspecific complaints from patients rather than communications on important topics. One study even suggested that emailing patients could decrease provider income.

3. HIPAA. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act requires that electronic protected health information (EPHI), including email, be communicated in a secure way -- that is, through an encrypted system. There are many commercial services available that allow encrypted patient-physician communications. For examples, of this search Google for [HIPAA and email]. In practice, however, most physicians do not have access to these encrypted email systems and are unwilling to pay for these services. In addition, patients may be unwilling to use proprietary online systems to communicate with their doctors when their everyday (unencrypted) email system is quick and simple. I've had patients complain unhappily that an encrypted online email system was too complicated to use, and why couldn't they just send me a plain old email...?

More on the many potential benefits to patient-physician email in part 2.
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About the Author


MD, FACP, FASN

Dr. Schwimmer's blog explores the intersection of medicine, new technologies, and the Internet.

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