Should you email your doctor?

You text your friends, shop online and probably use a banking app instead of visiting a teller. But are you willing to email your medical provider?

While the number of people reaching out to their doctors via email is climbing, not everyone is on board. Some patients and physicians are reluctant to use patient portals and email for communication. Although security concerns and a lack of one-on-one attention could give you pause about talking to your doctor online, the benefits of tech-savvy communication may outweigh the initial discomfort.

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The latest data suggests more than 29 percent of U.S. adults with Internet access used email or a patient portal to contact their physicians in 2013. That’s up from about 7 percent in 2003. This escalation is partly due to greater technology use overall, but another factor is the implementation of electronic health records and the systems that support them.

Electronic health systems create opportunities, hesitation

The federal government is pushing for a greater use and standardization of electronic health records and information systems, both through the Affordable Care Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which set a goal to have such systems in place for 70 percent of primary care physicians by 2014.

For many hospitals, the newly acquired electronic health records systems included patient portals, a means by which patients could access their health information and contact doctors directly.

The University of Iowa Hospitals’ electronic records system, Epic, came with a patient portal called MyChart. “We implemented the main system in 2009 but didn’t turn on the patient portal until 2010,” says Dr. Douglas Van Daele, chief medical information officer.

The reason for the delay, Van Daele says, was physician reticence.

“Part of their reluctance was in allowing patients to view their records, diagnostics and medical information that they may not initially know how to decipher,” he says. “Another was in giving patients the ability to contact their doctors directly.”

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These are common concerns, particularly for doctors who feel like the potential increase in patient demands will be difficult to meet. But generally studies have found physicians are ultimately satisfied with electronic communication systems once they are implemented. And their willingness to adapt will likely grow because the same federal initiatives implementing EHR systems offer financial incentives for doctors to exchange online messages with their patients.

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Pushing past that initial reluctance, Van Daele’s hospital has seen a dramatic increase in patient satisfaction in regards to diagnostics access, and about 40 percent of patients are active users of the system.

Patients of all ages are logging on

It’s true that not everyone is comfortable with doctor-patient email exchanges, but if the University of Iowa Hospitals’ system is any indication, patient portal use isn’t limited to certain age groups.

“I had a bias when we started this that it was likely going to be the younger people using this tool,” Van Daele says. “But what we’ve seen is it’s actually just a percentage of our underlying demographic. So you see about 30 percent of all age groups as active users of the system.”

Making electronic exchanges work for you

Everyone has his or her preferences, and if you would rather see your doctors when you speak with them, it’s your prerogative, but it may be cheaper and faster to address at least some of your medical concerns online.

If your doctor offers a secure portal, use it rather than direct email for communicating. As Van Daele explains, security is just one of the benefits of using a portal.

“In the vast majority of these systems, messages exchanged between you and your doctor become part of your official medical record,” he says, “so any one of the medical providers that see you can see this communication, that you raised certain questions and how they were handled.”

Also, using a portal is likely to get you a quicker response, as your message won’t get lost in a deep inbox, or, worse, filtered as spam.

There are of course some times that are more appropriate for electronic communications than others. You wouldn’t want to email or message your doctor about something that could be considered an emergency. You’ll also likely want to call if you need to cancel your appointment, or get last-minute information before arriving for lab work or certain procedures.

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But electronic messages can be useful if you have a question about medical side effects, new symptoms or what your lab results mean.

While technology in the exam room and beyond is only going to increase, it’s not likely the patient-doctor relationship will become a thing of the past. Email and patient portals are just one tool that can be used to improve communication, and, possibly, positive health outcomes.