Used correctly, it’s a powerful tool for patient engagement and practice marketing
For as long as email has been a part of our daily lives, doctors have been concerned about whether or not to use this method of communication with their patients. Even in 2019, the majority of doctors still are not regularly communicating with their patients electronically. Estimates show that only about 30 percent of doctors exchange email with their patients, while about 18 percent use text messaging to interact with patients.
Common concerns include how much time it will take, privacy and security issues, and whether it will open the door to fielding 3 a.m. inquiries about health symptoms. However, the data and doctors’ real-life experiences tell a different story. Are you overlooking a powerful tool to engage patients?
Stick to the guidelines
Many doctors worry that allowing patients to email them will open up the floodgates for questions like, “Does this look like pink eye to you?” Fears about HIPAA violations and diagnosing patients over email may outweigh any seemingly positive aspects of electronic communication. However, “doctors who do have email contact have found that these fears aren’t valid,” reported Verywell Health. Before circulating your email address to patients, you will need to set some rules and parameters and communicate these clearly.
The American Medical Association acknowledges that email “can be a useful tool in the practice of medicine,” and has developed a set of standards for providers in their email communications with patients. The AMA guidelines cover patient consent, disclaimers about the inherent limitations of email, and confidentiality and security.
The AMA and other sources provide guidelines for doctor-patient emails; e.g., patients must opt in to receive email, and it should not be used for urgent matters.
In practice, this means that patients must opt in to receive email from their doctor, email should not be used for urgent matters, and care should be taken to protect sensitive information. Bridge Patient Portal has distilled the 400+ page 1996 HIPAA law into these practical suggestions for applying HIPAA to your email/SMS communications with patients. (Example: Do not use the patient’s name, initials, or medical record number in the subject line of an email. Also, do not use direct patient identifiers in the message content.)
The AMA notes, “Email correspondence should not be used to establish a patient-physician relationship. Rather, email should supplement other, more personal encounters.” When in doubt, your response to a patient email should be, “Please contact my office to schedule an appointment.”
How email saves practices time and patients money
In fact, most doctor-patient emails are not related to diagnoses or clinical concerns. Rather, they take the place of phone calls to refill a prescription, reschedule an appointment, or inquire about a medication’s side effects.
Patient emails can cut down on phone calls and save time—as can texting, which one study found can save practices an average of eight hours per week.
According to Verywell Health, a doctor at Beth-Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston reported receiving six to 10 emails a day from patients and spending two minutes responding to each. Compare this to the eight to 10 phone calls he receives per day, which require a three- to five-minute response each—often after playing phone tag. One company found that texting is 10 times more efficient than phone calls, saving practices an average of eight hours per week.
It’s also worth noting that for patients with high deductibles or co-pays, the option to email their doctor may be appealing. A Kaiser Permanente study found that “patients with higher out-of-pocket cost-sharing for visits were significantly more likely to rely on email as their first method of contact in regards to a health concern.” The study also found that more than one in three patients who sent an email to providers reported that it reduced their phone contacts or office visits.
The power to improve outcomes
Research shows that both email and text communications improve patient outcomes, according to MedCityNews. Several studies found text messaging to be an effective tool for behavior change in areas such as weight loss, smoking cessation and diabetes management. Another study found a “small but meaningful” increase in flu vaccinations after sending customized weekly text messages to parents about the flu.
Studies show that email and text communications—the same technology patients use in their daily lives—improve health outcomes.
And the above-mentioned Kaiser Permanente study found that “patient engagement through email has potential in affecting higher quality outcomes,” with one third of patients in the study who sent an email to providers reporting that it had improved their overall health. Doctors can leverage this by emailing patients a post-op instructions video to increase adherence, for example.Kaiser Permanente finds that “patient engagement through email has potential in affecting higher quality outcomes,” with one third of patients in the study who sent an email to providers reporting that it had improved their overall health. Click To Tweet
Why is electronic communication so powerful? Because email and text are what patients use in their daily lives. “It makes sense to share health information in this way. Using their adopted technology, your health information reaches patients seamlessly—in a way they’re used to and rely upon,” stated MedCityNews.
An effective practice marketing tool
When used properly, email can be an important part of your practice marketing strategy. “Email marketing can take many different forms,” according to practice marketing firm PatientPop. “An email campaign can provide educational messaging (i.e. summer skincare tips), promotional messaging (i.e. six Botox sessions for the price of five), seasonal greetings (i.e. Happy New Year!), or even be in the form of a monthly newsletter. Serving up different types of content will engage and inform patients, keeping them interested in your emails.”
Practice marketing emails should be short, engaging, include a call to action, and be a mix of educational and promotional messaging.
Keys to effective practice marketing emails include:
- Making sure patients have opted in to receiving your emails, boosting the odds they will actually open and read them.
- Write an engaging subject line. PatientPop advises keeping your subject line short and including your practice name.
- Include a call-to-action such as “Book Online” or “Schedule an Appointment.”
- Keep emails short and sweet. Using video can help cut down on text-heavy emails that patients will skip over. Here’s an example: How to prepare for your appointment.
“Email and text have an important place in patient-provider communication and remain patients’ top choices for connecting with their doctors outside the medical office or hospital walls,” reported MedCityNews.