Docs who email are still a rare breed

August 6, 2013 in Medical Technology

Despite the fact that patients are clamoring for it and health organizations see its benefits, electronic communication from primary care physicians won’t become commonplace until doctors’ workloads are reduced – or they get paid extra for emails and phone calls.

That’s according to a new study from Weill Cornell Medical College, which examined six different medical practices that routinely use electronic communication for clinical purposes. The report appears in the August issue of Health Affairs.

“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,” said Tara F. Bishop, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health and Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, in a statement. “But many physicians say that while it may help patients, it is a challenge for them.

“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,” said Bishop.

Nonetheless, more physicians may soon find themselves compelled to communicate via patient portals or secure email as patients and practice management demand it.

“I think there are ways to make a transition to electronic communications in health care work,” she said. “Our study offers some good examples, but I still think we have a long way to go before physicians routinely email their patients.”

Even as simple electronic messages have been shown to improve care and lower costs – such as emailing test results to patients or checking in on chronic conditions without the need for an office visit – very few physicians avail themselves of it.

By 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, fewer than 7 percent of docs regularly communicated with their patients electronically, according to Weill Cornell researchers.

Seeking to know more about the practices that do embrace email, Bishop and her team interviewed leaders of 21 medical groups – and also spoke to staff, including physicians, in six groups that use electronic communications extensively, but varied in their approach.

Five of the six medical groups were large: Four had more than 500 physicians and one had 115 physicians. The sixth had 15 physicians within a large academic medical center. None were affiliated with Weill Cornell.

Among the researchers’ findings:

All six practices used electronic means to communicate test results, allow patients to request medication refills, appointments and to ask questions of their doctors.

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