You’ve got mail — or at least you could have

E-mail saves time, and patients love it

Here’s what’s bound to be a familiar scenario: Jane Jones calls your office with a question about the medication you prescribed. A staff member takes a message and leaves it for you. You call her back several hours later when you have a break. The phone is busy, or no one answers.

This could go on for hours. It’s frustrating for the physician and the patient.

The problem of playing phone tag with nonurgent medical questions can be solved for many patients by e-mail. If you have a Web site, you automatically have e-mail capabilities.

Studies show that many patients use e-mail daily for personal and business communications, but few have used it to communicate with their doctors.

Researchers at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor found that although 40% of general medical clinic patients regularly use e-mail, only 14% have used it to communicate with their doctors.

The survey of 320 patients and 75 resident physicians also found that 70% of patients, both e-mail users and nonusers, would like to communicate with their health providers via e-mail.

In the same survey, 83% of patients’ physicians said they think e-mail is a good way to answer patient’s nonurgent medical questions, but only 27% were currently using it.

A different study, by Santa Clara, CA-based Healtheon Corporation, showed that 33% of physicians were using e-mail to communicate with patients, an increase of 200% in a year.

E-mail is like other technology; it takes time for people to realize how effective it can be, says Jerry Kelly, executive vice president for physician sales and marketing for Salu.net, a Portland, OR, provider of Internet application services for physicians.

"Some of the more progressive physicians are communicating with their patients and colleagues with the e-mail package. Some are more cautious and are nervous about getting inundated with too much e-mail," Kelly says.

E-mail between physicians and patients may grow slowly simply because many patients don’t have computers, adds Peter Zazzara, executive director for Superior Consultant Co. Inc., a Southfield, IN consulting firm.

One potential problem with e-mail is that problems may arise if patients use it in an emergency and the physician doesn’t see it immediately, Kelly points out. To solve that problem, Salu.net has build into its e-mail system an auto response mechanism that instructs patients to call 911 in case of an emergency. Or, if a physician is out of the office, the patient is referred automatically to another physician or a triage nurse.

Initial use of e-mail is more likely to be between physicians or between physicians and hospitals and clinics than between physicians and patients, Zazzara says.

He has worked with physician practices to develop a clinical messaging system so that when lab results are completed, an e-mail with the results is sent immediately to the physician. "They know the results immediately instead of having to call and ask if the labs are back. They can forward the message on with specific instructions to another physician for consultation," he says.