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For many of us, email has become a primary means of building relationships, conducting business, and keeping in touch.  It is very effective in doing so, and while it isn’t a full replacement for phone and face-to-face interaction, it does provide a very efficient means by which to communicate.

In business, email has another important benefit; it provides a document trail that can be used to record activity and conversation, creating a transcript of all that is said (and not said) via electronic format.  Along with other benefits, the efficiency of use and ability to document in real time provides some obvious appeal to those who communicate with clients on a regular basis.

Enter physicians, dentists, physical therapists, and other healthcare providers that interact with clients (i.e., patients) on a daily basis.  While drawbacks exist in the use of email as a means of communicating with patients, we are finding that patients like it and doctors are on the verge of getting reimbursed for it; both important drivers for the regular use of email in the near term.  There will be many pitfalls to avoid for the physician and patient alike, but we will soon be seeing more and more use of email between provider and patients in the years to come.

This article in Modern Medicine explains in detail the key benefits associated with the use of email between physicians and patients, and speaks to the trends that are currently underway in this important area of medical practice.

If you haven’t yet begun using e-mail to communicate with patients, there are plenty of reasons to start. First is the increasingly loud patient clamor for e-mail, as indicated in one survey after another. The latest is a Harris Interactive/Wall Street Journal poll in which three out of four respondents said they should be able to schedule medical appointments via e-mail or the Internet, and e-mail their doctors as part of their overall medical care—at no extra charge.

Ironically, that proviso is precisely what has discouraged many time-pressed doctors from giving their patients e-mail access. But as patient demand rises, the “no extra charge” barrier is slowly but surely coming down.

Late last year, Aetna and Cigna HealthCare announced that they would dramatically expand programs that reimburse physicians for “virtual visits.” Until recently, only a handful of health plans paid doctors for this service, and the news has sparked speculation that other insurers will soon follow. Not surprisingly, the number of physicians who communicate with patients electronically is also on the rise—going from 19 percent in 2003 to 31 percent in 2007, according to a Manhattan Research survey of more than 1,300 doctors. Among physicians who did not yet use a secure online messaging service, one in four said they intended to start in the next 12 months.