Electronic communication between doctors and patients

March 2, 2005

An article in this morning’s New York Times describes the move toward structured, electronic messaging between doctors and patients. (My client, RelayHealth of Emeryville, CA is featured prominently.)

For doctors, the convenience of online exchanges can be considerable. They say they can offer advice about postsurgical care, diet, changing a medication and other topics that can be handled safely and promptly without an office visit or a frustrating round of telephone tag. And surveys have shown that e-mail, by reducing the number of daily office visits, gives physicians more time to spend with patients who need to be seen face to face.

For patients, e-mail allows them to send their medical questions from home in the evening, without missing work and spending time in a doctor’s waiting room. In fact, many say exchanges in the more relaxed, conversational realm of e-mail make them feel closer to their doctors.

Some health plans are reimbursing physicians for these online webVisits. However they don’t quite get it because in many cases they still charge the patient the same co-pay as for an office visit, which discourages patients from trying the service.

“Patients love this stuff; I love this stuff; the staff loves this stuff,” said Dr. Barbara Walters, a senior medical director at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire… “The intelligence of our patients never ceases to amaze me,” Dr. Walters said. “Patients can describe what’s going on with them, if given the chance and given the time.”

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