Background: Email is the most important mechanism introduced since the telephone for developing interpersonal relationships. This study was designed to provide insight into how patients are using email to request information or services from their healthcare providers.
Methods: Following IRB approval, we reviewed all electronic mail (e-mail) messages sent between five study clinicians and their patients over a one-month period. We used a previously described taxonomy of patient requests to categorize all patient requests contained in the messages. We measured message volume, frequency, length and response time for all messages sent to and received by these clinicians.
Results: On average the 5 physicians involved in this study received 40 messages per month, each containing approximately 139 words. Replies sent by the physicians contained 39 words on average and 59.4% of them were sent within 24 hours. Patients averaged 1 request per message. Requests for information on medications or treatments, specific symptoms or diseases, and requests for actions regarding medications or treatments accounted for 75% of all requests. Physicians fulfilled 80.2% of all these requests. Upon comparison of these data to that obtained from traditional office visits, it appears that the potential exists for email encounters to substitute for some percentage of office visits.
Conclusion: Electronic messaging is an important method for physicians and patients to communicate and further develop their relationship. While many physicians worry that either the number or length of messages from their patients will overwhelm them, there is no evidence to support this. In fact, the evidence suggests that many patient requests, formerly made over the telephone or during office visits, can be addressed via email thus potentially saving both patients and physicians time.