E-mail as the Appropriate Method of Communication for the Decision-Maker When Soliciting Advice for an Intellective Decision Task

Anesth Analg. 2015 Sep;121(3):669-677. doi: 10.1213/ANE.0000000000000658.


For many problems in operating room and anesthesia group management, there are tasks with optimal decisions, and yet experienced personnel tend to make decisions that are worse or no better than random chance. Such decisions include staff scheduling, case scheduling, moving cases among operating rooms, and choosing patient arrival times. In such settings, operating room management leadership decision-making should typically be autocratic rather than participative. Autocratic-style decision-making calls for managers to solicit and consider feedback from stakeholders in the decision outcome but to make the decision themselves using their expert knowledge and the facts received. For this to be effective, often the manager will obtain expert advice from outside the organization (e.g., health system). In this narrative review, we evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using prompt asynchronous written communication (i.e., e-mail) as a communication channel for such interaction between a decision-maker (manager) and advisor. A detailed Appendix (Supplemental Digital Content, http://links.lww.com/AA/B72) lists each observational and experimental result. We find that the current ubiquitous role of e-mail for such communication is appropriate. Its benefits include improved time management via asynchronicity, low cognitive load (e.g., relative to Web conferencing), the ability to hide undesirable and irrelevant cues (e.g., physical appearance), the appropriateness of adding desirable cues (e.g., titles and degrees), the opportunity to provide written expression of confidence, and the ability for the advisor to demonstrate the answer for the decision-maker. Given that the manager is e-mailing an advisor whose competence the manager trusts, it is unnecessary to use a richer communication channel to develop trust. Finally, many of the limitations of e-mail can be rectified through training. We expect that decades from now, e-mail (i.e., asynchronous writing) between an expert and decision-maker will remain the dominant means of communication for intellective tasks.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cognition
  • Communication*
  • Decision Making*
  • Electronic Mail / standards*
  • Electronic Mail / statistics & numerical data
  • Electronic Mail / trends
  • Humans
  • Leadership*
  • Operating Rooms / standards*
  • Operating Rooms / trends