It’s almost impossible to imagine conducting business today without having access to e-mail. It only takes a computer glitch or brief power outage to be reminded how dependent we’ve all become on the Internet, and e-mail specifically. And yet, healthcare providers have been slow to jump on the bandwagon when it comes to communicating with patients electronically. Some fear becoming so inundated with e-mail that they’d never leave their desk again. Others worry about patient privacy issues or the fact that this type of communication is not generally reimbursed, although a few insurance companies are beginning to pay for “e-visits.”
Despite the potential obstacles, there are ways to make communicating electronically with patients work. If you’re considering this for your practice, here are a few points to keep in mind.
Ensuring that private information stays private is priority number one with any type of patient communication, and e-mail is no exception. HIPAA does not specifically address electronic communication, so you’ll need to have policies in place that you feel keep you compliant with current regulations.
Be sure to document in your records that patients have given permission to receive e-mail from your office, just as you would for leaving voice messages on phones. Have your computer system checked and/or upgraded so that messages are being sent and received in a secure manner. Your software vendor or computer consultant can advise you on using encryption and/or passwords.
Communicating basic information such as appointment reminders through e-mail can save time, but you’ll need to have a process in place that makes the task simple. If you use an electronic health record system in your practice, it likely includes a reminder function that you can deploy. If you’re using paper records, you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons of using e-mail reminders, taking set-up and ongoing staff time into consideration.
When you’re ready to begin using e-mail to communicate with patients, consider starting out slowly and with the basics. For example, you might start with appointment reminders only for a few months before branching out into allowing patients to request prescription refills electronically.
If your nurses and/or doctors use e-mail to communicate with patients on clinical issues, they should be careful about not getting into convoluted back and forth discussions. Anything that can’t be dealt with in short order likely warrants an office visit. A relatively new patient or an established patient inquiring about a new problem may not be a candidate for receiving advice via e-mail. When in doubt, have the patient come in.
Patient education will be needed when you begin using electronic communication, and you’ll want policies in place related to turnaround time (is the standard that you’ll respond to patients within 24-48 hours, or longer?), and when patients should and should not use e-mail to communicate with your office (e.g., yes for a prescription refill or to change an appointment, no in emergency situations or when they have a complex question or problem). One way to control the types of inquiries you receive from patients is to allow e-mail only through your practice Web site, and use check boxes for what is acceptable (refill, appointment, billing, etc.). Indicate that anything other than what’s listed requires a phone call.
Used with care, e-mail can be a wonderful, time-saving tool that benefits both patients and your practice. Think it through carefully before proceeding.