OBJECTIVE: To explore the experiences of patients who were early adopters of e-mail communication with their physicians.
METHODS: Patients' experiences were assessed with an Internetbased survey of 1881 individuals and in-depth telephone follow-up interviews with 56 individuals who used e-mail to communicate with providers. Two investigators qualitatively coded interview comments independently, with differences adjudicated by group consensus.
RESULTS: A total of 311 (16.5%) of the 1881 individuals reported using electronic mail to communicate with their physicians. Compared with the population-based Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, users of e-mail with physicians were twice as likely to have a college education, were younger, were less frequently ethnic minorities, and more frequently reported fair/poor health. Among the 311 patients who used e-mail with their physicians, the most frequent topics were results of laboratory testing and prescription renewals. However, many of the 311 users (21%) also reported using asynchronous e-mail inappropriately to convey urgent or sensitive issues (suicidality, chest pain, etc). Almost all (95%) perceived that e-mail was more efficient than the telephone. Important benefits uncovered from the interviews were that some patients felt more emboldened to ask questions in e-mail compared with face-to-face communication with doctors, and liked the ability to save the e-mail messages. Users also expressed concerns about privacy.
CONCLUSION: Patients that use electronic communication with their physicians find the communication efficient for disease management. Further patient education about inappropriate use of e-mail for urgent issues is needed.