The Doctor’s In(box)

Family Health, Featured Article, Healthy Living, Power to the Patient
on August 16, 2011
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You probably know your physician’s email address; you may even follow him or her on Facebook. But while email can be useful and efficient, and may even improve your relationship with your healthcare provider, it’s not always a smart replacement for face-to-face conversation. In fact, only an estimated 7 percent of physicians say they feel comfortable discussing health-related information with patients over email or social networks. Still, e-mail-friendly docs are increasing in number, says Stephen T. Wilkins, founder of Smart Health Messaging. Before you press “send,” consider the following dos and don’ts.

Do ask before you email. “A good rule of thumb is to ask your doctor if e-mail visits are possible before you contact the office with a medical problem,” says Wilkins. The office staff can help you follow any necessary steps or protocol (some doctors’ email services require enrollment and/or agreement to conditions). Make sure a secure e-mail server is in place to guarantee that your information is protected.

Don’t expect instant feedback. Your doc may receive hundreds of emails a day—and responding to them may not be her first priority. “Don’t assume that a sent email means that someone has read it immediately,” says Dr. Adam Deutsch of Park Avenue Cardiology in New York City. If your question is urgent, you’re better off picking up the phone and talking to a nurse, or scheduling an appointment. A typical response time is 24 hours or more, though some doctors may answer morning emails during lunch, or afternoon emails in the evening.

Do use email only for follow-up. Emails to your doc should only discuss a diagnosis you’ve been treated for or received in person, by that doctor. “I often tell patients to email me if they have any questions, but I focus on medication-related issues, questions about when to follow-up, or if they have questions over the weekend or after hours when I’m out of the office,” says Dr. Joshua Davidson, an allergist and immunologist and verified expert on JustAnswer.com.

Do include the details. While e-mail isn’t the place to bring up a problem you’ve never approached your doc about before, it is important to be as specific as possible when describing your current complaint. Describe symptoms and when they’ve occurred, if applicable, to your best recollection. Mention any medications you’re taking, what your diagnosis was at your last office visit, and always include a phone number. Finally, state your preferred form of response (e-mail or phone), says Davidson.

Don’t send if it’s serious. Urgent problems—including any new physical signs or symptoms–and very personal issues should always be handled face-to-face. “No conversation can replace a physical examination, no matter how well the patient describes their symptoms,” says Davidson.

Don’t send from your work computer. Or your work smartphone, or any public device. Just as you with any private or confidential information, transmit it only via your own personal devices for maximum security.

Want to know more about the pros and cons of e-doctoring? Keep reading here.