Should Physicians Use Email To Communicate With Customers?

23 Feb

The healthcare industry faces two opposing forces: quality and cost of care. In recent years the US National Health Expenditure has dramatically increased. Let’s put this growth in perspective– the amount of money our government spends on healthcare is only surpassed by expenditures on defense. Consequently, providers of healthcare and the government are pressured to decrease costs. However, does cutting back on expenses change the quality of care that hospitals and providers give to patients?

As most of the world has jumped on the email bandwagon, many physicians have not. Some argue that email would decrease the number of visits to physicians and therefore lower their expenses. So maybe it helps control costs, but what effect does email have on quality of care? Let’s look at the effect on patient-doctor relationships, liability concerns, and risk of misunderstanding.

Patient-Doctor Relationships

For many patients, scheduling a visit to the doctor’s office can take weeks. Email can help a patient feel directly connected to his or her doctor instead of having to wait for an appointment. This connection makes a patient feel like the doctor cares and is always there to answer questions. However, other doctors think that email is not a substitute for face-to-face interaction. When a doctor speaks to a patient, he or she should be able to read the patient’s body language, facial expressions, and see any reactions the patient might have. Quality of care might diminish due to the lack of direct communication in emails. In addition, many people have different styles of writing. For example, one person might be sensitive while the other is curt. This difference in style could hurt a doctor-patient relationship.

Liability Concerns

Privacy is an issue with any form of communication, not just email. However, encryption of emails and other secure messaging applications can prevent unwanted eyes from seeing an email. A doctor’s job is to deliver the highest-quality care, and that job includes timely information. Patients do not want to wait weeks to see a doctor for a question that can easily be answered by email. On the other hand, an email between a doctor and patient is inviting malpractice suits. What if a doctor gives inaccurate information because the patient was not actually in the office for an appointment? If a patient gives his or her doctor’s email address to a friend is that person now the doctor’s responsibility? When a doctor emails patients, the threat of liabilities is too great.

Risk of Misunderstanding

Emails to patients can be short and concise. If a patient has any concerns or further questions, he or she can either email the doctor back or make an appointment. After all, email is not meant to replace the doctor; it is just another way of communicating faster. However, the Internet today is rapidly changing the availability of information to patients about health. Nowadays, information about conditions and diseases is readily available for anyone to see. A patient may panic because of an unclear email and run to the Internet for more information, some of which could be from an inaccurate source. Once again, this problem stems from not being able to see a patient’s reaction. Missing the face-to-face communication can lead to huge misunderstandings.

At the end of the day, using email is at the doctor’s discretion. Some doctors feel that email is efficient and improves their relationship with patients. However, others feel that it hinders communication and can lead to malpractice lawsuits. No matter which way you look at it, communication is vital in the healthcare industry. The paradox of quality and cost is not going away and it must be addressed. Email may be one way to lower costs, but is it worth it?

Additional Reading – Wall Street Journal – “Should Physicians Use Email To Communicate With Patients”

by Alexandra Orlander

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