Patients email docs about conditions, complaints

Despite the years-long debate over the pros and cons of physician-patient email, there's been little insight available to doctors about what kinds of messages to expect from patients or vice versa. But in a new study entitled, "You've Got Mail: Exploring Patient-Provider Email Communication in a Primary Care Setting," researchers dug into the content of 527 unique, de-identified email messages from three general practitioners collected over 90 days.

Through their analysis, University of Kansas researchers Mugur V. Geana, assistant professor of journalism, and K. Allen Greiner, associate professor of family medicine at the KU Medical Center, both former physicians, identified some characteristics of the electronic messages.

Doctors took an average of 23 hours to reply to a patient's email, compared to five hours for patients. The longer it took physicians to respond, the lengthier their responses tended to be. Patients did not appear to be dissatisfied with physicians' response time.

Seventy percent of physician emails were in response to a patient's message, while the rest were emails providing test results, appointment reminders or other similar items. Treatments and lab tests were the most common topics of discussion for both patients and providers.

Regarding patient emails, about 18 percent of patients' email messages included complaints of some sort. Among the emails with complaints, 9 percent were about the doctor, 13 percent about other medical personnel, 17 percent about their treatment, 61 percent about the evolution of their disease, and 26 percent about other issues.

Twenty-three percent of them were about medical problems of a family member or friend they were caring for. About a fourth of patients' emails included updates on their condition, most commonly when it had gotten worse.

The researchers hope to expand their preliminary findings to get more in-depth answers about how physicians and patients use email and why.

To learn more:
- read the press release from the University of Kansas

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