Doctors like emailing patients but want to be paid for it, study finds

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 15 August 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5143
  1. Michael McCarthy
  1. 1Seattle

Doctors who regularly use email find that it is an effective way to communicate with patients but that it adds to their workload without adding to their income, a study has found.

Tara Bishop and her colleagues at Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City, interviewed leaders of 21 US medical groups that used electronic communication extensively.

They then followed up with interviews with providers and staff working in six of these 21 groups. The groups ranged from large medical groups with more than 500 physicians to a small group practice and included both salaried and fee for service providers. They reported their findings in the journal Health Affairs.1

Although email is used extensively in most other sectors of society, less than 7% of US physicians routinely emailed their patients in 2008.2

In the study, among those providing direct patient care the number of electronic messages received varied from five to 10 per day to as many as 20 to 50 per day. In some groups, time was carved out of their primary care schedules for electronic communications. In others, providers could decide to have fewer face to face visits to make time for email and telephone communications.

In general, the providers viewed communicating with patients by email very favorably. Such communications were much more convenient for patients and boosted patient satisfaction, they said.

They also found that it was efficient and safe. None, for example, said they were aware of a case in which an electronic communication led to a poor outcome, the researchers reported.

But providers did believe that electronic communication created more work for them for which they often were not reimbursed. “There’s no end to it. This has allowed us to work all the time,” one physician lamented.

Overall, however, providers’ experiences with electronic communications “were on the whole, very positive,” the researchers said. Nevertheless, they added, “Until different payment models emerge that compensate practices for non-traditional models of care, electronic communication is unlikely to be widely adopted by physician practices.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5143