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E-mails Improve Patient-Surgeon Communication

Study found more exchanges occurred when people were encouraged to use them

MONDAY, Feb. 18 (HealthDay News) -- Providing patients with e-mail access to their surgeon appears to improve communication, a new report shows.

"People who use e-mail certainly would like to have e-mail access to their physicians," concluded the authors of the study, published in the February issue of the Archives of Surgery. "Despite the many concerns, we believe that this study shows that the provision to patients of readily available e-mail access to their surgeon provides a very effective means of improving communication prior to patients undergoing elective surgery."

Although e-mail has transformed business and personal communication in the past decade, little has been published regarding its use in health care "other than dire warnings about the potential minefield of legal disasters and litigation that might accompany its use," according to background information in the article.

The study -- conducted by Dr. Peter Stalberg, of the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, Australia, and his colleagues -- covers 100 patients who were undergoing thyroid or parathyroid surgery. All had access to their surgeon's e-mail address through their appointment card and a Web site, but half also received an information sheet with the e-mail address and a statement that the surgeon's preferred method of communication was e-mail. The other patients received an information sheet without either the e-mail address or statement.

In all, 26 of 100 patients (26 percent) initiated additional communication with the surgeon around the time of operation. The group given the sheet with the e-mail information contacted the surgeon the most (19 of the 50 versus seven of the 50 without it). Most of the communication -- 22 of the 26 contacts -- was conducted by e-mail, regardless of whether the person had received a sheet with the e-mail information.

The other four communications were by fax (three) or phone (one).

For patients using e-mail, 18 of 22 (81 percent) were in the group provided with e-mail information, while four of the 22 (18 percent) were in the group that did not receive e-mail information on their contact sheet.

Most e-mails sent addressed one issue, with the most issues being four in one e-mail. Some of the most popular issues raised by e-mail were general information (in 21 e-mails), postoperative recovery (eight), results (five) and reassurance (four). There were no differences in patient satisfaction with communication between the two groups.

More information

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has a video and other information about having good communications with your doctor.

-- Kevin McKeever

SOURCE: Journal of the American Medical Association, news release, Feb. 18, 2008

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