News Feature | September 9, 2013

Providers Reluctant To Communicate Through Email

By Katie Wike, contributing writer

Frustrated Doctor

Weill Cornell Medical College’s recent study of six practices found patients preferred email and other electronic communication, but providers say it doesn’t pay

Patients like the idea of emailing their doctor, and with patient portals on the way, this method of communication should only increase in popularity. However, according to a study from Weill Cornell Medical College, providers feel that unless they are compensated for the extra time it takes to communicate via email, they will be unwilling participants if they participate at all.

The study involved leaders of 21 practices that embrace email, and staff in 6 groups that use email extensively. The study, here on Health Affairs, found, “Electronic communication was widely perceived to be a safe, effective, and efficient means of communication that improves patient satisfaction and saves patients’ time but that increases the volume of physician work unless office visits are reduced.”

In a press release from Weill Cornell, the study’s leader - Dr. Tara F. Bishop - is quoted as saying, “Leaders of medical groups that use electronic communication find it to be efficient and effective — they say it improves patient satisfaction and saves time for patients. But many physicians say that while it may help patients, it is a challenge for them.”

According to Bishop, “The lack of compensation is one issue, and another is that unless the practice takes steps to reduce a physician's daily workload of patients, communicating with patients is extra work that makes some doctors feel that their day can never end.”

The overall advantages of emailing patients were obvious - it was an efficient system for sending test results, requesting prescription refills, scheduling appointments, and asking questions. The amount of emails that studied doctors sent varied from 5 to 50 fifty per day.

Healthcare IT News reports that while communicating with patients online reduces office visits, it doesn’t actually decrease a physician’s workload. “One leader said that the work never ends. It takes a psychological toll on some people — the feeling of never being done. Another said that in one day, he sometimes sees 10 patients face-to-face but communicates with another 50, commenting that he works all the time,” said Bishop.

According to the study, unless the payment model changes and doctors are compensated for the extra time they spend online with patients, email is still unlikely to emerge as a popular form of communication. Bishop also predicts, “I think there are ways to make a transition to electronic communications in healthcare work. Our study offers some good examples, but I still think we have a long way to go before physicians routinely email their patients.”

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