Healthcare News & Insights

3 downsides of electronic patient communication

As we’ve reported before, most patients want to use online portals to connect with their healthcare providers. However, a recent report shows why organizations might think twice about adopting some of those tools. 

email-in-inboxPatients want to use online portals for many different functions, such as viewing their medical records, making appointments, and requesting prescription refills.

While providers are beginning to offer those capabilities, they may not be as willing to grant another patient request: the ability to communicate with doctors electronically to ask questions and request other information.

Talking to patients through email or other dedicated electronic channels can provide a big boost to patient satisfaction, according to a recent study published in Health Affairs. Healthcare organizations also say online communication can improve workflow and improve efficiency.

However, doctors themselves aren’t very fond of that electronic communication.

3 challenges

For the study, researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College in New York interviewed doctors leading six medical groups that regularly used electronic tools to talk to patients.

Though they acknowledged the potential benefits for patients and providers, the doctors had a few major complaints:

  • Time — Exchanging messages with patients outside of normal office visits means more work for doctors. For the group surveyed in the study, the number of emails each doctor answer ranged from five to 50 each day.
  • Payment — Of course, that extra work would be more appealing to doctors if it meant extra income. However, only one of the organizations looked at in the study was charging patients for those electronic services. Another had been charging patients a $60 annual fee to get to use the communication system, but decided to stop because competitors were offering those services for free.
  • Skills — Inexperience with email and other electronic communication on the part of patients and doctors got in the way for some of the groups studied.

Despite those concerns, the good outweighed the bad for those organizations — mainly, the benefits were higher patient satisfaction, as well as time saved by allowing patients to ask for prescription refills or test results, for example, without visiting the office.

However, organizations should look for ways to protect doctors’ time when they start using those electronic communication tools.

Some options: One of the providers studied factored time to respond to messages into doctors’ schedules, while another let doctors decide how many patients they saw in a day to allow time for electronic communication.

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