E-Patient Update: Clinicians Who Email Patients Have Stronger Patient Relationships

Posted on January 26, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

I don’t know about you, but before I signed up with Kaiser Permanente – which relies heavily on doctor-to-patient messaging via a portal – it was almost unthinkable for a primary care clinician to share their email address with me. Maybe I was dealing with old-fashioned folks, but in every other respect, most of my PCPs have seemed modern enough.

Few physicians have been willing to talk with me on the phone, either, though nurses and clinical assistants typically passed along messages. Yes, I know that it’s almost impossible for doctors to chat with patients these days, but it doesn’t change that this set-up impedes communication somewhat. (I know – no solution is perfect.)

Given these experiences, I was quite interested to read about a new study looking at modes of communication between doctors and patients in the good old days before EHR implementation. The study, which appeared in the European Journal for Person Centered Healthcare, compared how PCPs used cellphones, email messages and texts, as well as how these communication styles affected patient satisfaction.

To conduct the study, researchers conducted a 16-question survey of 149 Mid-Atlantic primary care providers. The survey took place in the year before the practices rolled out EHRs offering the ability to send secure messages to patients.

In short, researchers found that PCPs who gave patients their email addresses were more likely to engage in ongoing email conversations. When providers did this, patients reported higher overall satisfaction than with providers who didn’t share their address. Cellphone use and text messaging didn’t have this effect.

According to the authors, the study suggests that when providers share their email addresses, it may point to a stronger relationship with the patient in question. OK, I get that. But I’d go further and say that when doctors give patients their email address it can create a stronger patient relationship than they had before.

Look, I’m aware that historically, physicians have been understandably reluctant to share contact information with patients. Many doctors are already being pushed to the edge by existing demands on their time. They had good reason to fear that they would be deluged with messages, spending time for which they wouldn’t be reimbursed and incurring potential medical malpractice liability in the process.

Over time, though, it’s become clear that PCPs haven’t gotten as many messages as they expected. Also, researchers have found that physician-patient email exchanges improve the quality of care they deliver. Not only that, in some cases email messaging between doctors and patients has helped chronically-ill patients manage their conditions more effectively.

Of course, no communication style is right for everyone, and obviously, that includes doctors. But it seems that in many cases, ongoing messaging between physicians and patients may well be worth the trouble.