Benefits of Communicating with Patients via Email

Use of email and text messaging as a means of communicating has grown dramatically over the last decade, but it has lagged within the health care field. According to last year’s Second Annual Healthcare IT Insights and Opportunities Survey conducted by CompTIA, while many physicians want to increase their use of email to correspond with patients, relatively few have done so. However, those who have are realizing the benefits.

“[Email is] a way to drive new business to the practice at times when patients would not otherwise be able to reach the office,” explains Scott Disch, director of MetroWest Physician Services, a physician practice group headquartered in Framingham, Mass., which began using email to address appointment requests about three months ago. “It’s a benefit not only for the office but for the patient to be able to access us on a timely basis.”

Worth the adjustment

Disch says that about half of the patient email correspondence over the past three months has come through during the evening hours when the office is closed. In that case, when a patient’s email hits the practice website, it’s redirected to Disch’s email or his Blackberry where he’s able to respond quickly and get the patient to the proper office so an appointment can be set up. In most cases, the response to patient email occurs within a one-hour time period.

“We’ve been interacting well with patients,” Disch says, though he admits that some staff members have had to develop a comfort level using their work email. “Some of them are old school where they don’t want the patient to have their work email. But to me, that’s why you have a work email. You should be able to dialogue with patients accordingly and appropriately.”

The group practice has also been using email to send patients appointment reminders, or a reminder to have a blood test done. Disch says the regular contact with patients is a way to encourage them to be accountable for their health care.

“We’re being more proactive rather than waiting for the patient to come into the office and ordering a test,” he says. “And many times when patients come to the office they don’t remember what they wanted to tell the doctor. With email, patients can send the doctor a note when they think of something and get a response back in a timely manner.”

Reaching out to patients

In Los Angeles, Tony Nakhla, DO, FAOCD, medical director of the OC Skin Institute and author of the forthcoming book The Skin Commandments: 10 Rules to Healthy, Beautiful Skin (September, Reedy Press), has been using email to correspond with patients for the past three years. The practice collects patient information, including email addresses, up front and uses a program called Constant Contact to pool patient email to send out promotional items related to the practice.

“Patients like it,” Nakhla says. “They like the fact that they can just open their email and see what the latest product or service offerings are. It’s less time consuming for them. And we certainly don’t share any medical record information via email. We keep it anonymous, and we allow people to unsubscribe from our email list if they no longer wish to be contacted.”

Nakhla says that about 40% of his practice is cosmetic, so patients receive a lot of promotional coupons and discounts for cosmetic and laser procedures. But he points out that any physician in any type of practice could use email as a way to stay in touch with patients about their health care, such as sending reminders for flu shots or annual examinations.

“We also remind patients when their skin cancer examination is due or when it’s time for a routine follow-up,” he says. “[Email] is a good way for physicians to begin to stay close to their patients.”

Expanding usage

Disch points out that the best way to spur physician use of email as a way of communicating with patients is through financial incentives because of how time consuming the practice could be. The switch to more email correspondences will be similar to the use of EMRs. Those physicians using EMRs can spend an additional five to seven hours on the computer, says Disch.

“They’re probably more prompt in addressing the issues that are coming into their office,” he says. “But they’re spending more time in the evenings, checking labs, because they have access to it anywhere.”

Disch expects physicians will find themselves with increased after-hours work on the computer with emails, which many might be reluctant about.

“I make sure I read all my emails by the end of the day, but not all physicians are like that,” Disch says. “So, I think the catalyst will be to try to get that financial incentive for physicians to be able to use that email correspondence.”