Physician-patient emails: The debate rages on

The question of whether or not physicians and patients should exchange emails seems fairly straight-forward. It is, after all, a simple yes or no question. But everywhere you look--from articles in the Wall Street Journal to surveys and research papers to personal blog posts and tweets--the debate continues unabated.

Robert Sadaty, M.D., is among the latest to weigh in. Writing a blog post for KevinMD.com, he explains why he gave up on email exchanges with patients--and why, he adds, will never go back.

"For sure, most patients loved using email," he writes.  "The option to report any symptom or concern at any time of the day without having to bother with telephone menu prompts or dealing with the hassles of making appointments proved to be tremendously convenient. And for those questions that were straightforward and consisted of hardly two sentences at most, email at times was a definite time saver."

You hear the "but" coming, right?

Confusing messages, the lack of face-to-face interactions, the possibility of missing a diagnosis, the fact that patients don't always know what's minor and what's not--all of these are reasons to avoid email.

But, if you must, he does offer some tips on how to make it work, including using a secure messaging system that sends confirmation of receipt, limiting message length to 140 characters (a la Twitter), software the scans for key words and alerts docs to messages that might be important, and clear communication about how the docs use email.

Still, patients and physicians can do all of that--and still might not get an accurate response from their doctor. In what one has to assume is a rhetorical question, he asks: "Or dare they pick up the phone and punch in 7 keys to speak with a live person, make an appointment, and have their best chance of getting the right treatment?"

Even researchers have gotten in on the act: In a study out of the University of Kansas, researchers examined 527 unique, de-identified emails to see what kinds of messages physicians and patients sent and tallied up other facts, such as how long it took docs to respond.

To learn more:
- read the KevinMD.com post

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