The University Record, November 2, 1998

Study explores e-mail between patients and doctors

By Pete Barkey
Health System Public Relations

The use of e-mail in health care settings is becoming much more common, but very little research has been done on this subject—until now.

Investigators in the Health System are setting out to examine e-mail usage between doctors and their patients in a three-year study, “The Effect of Enhanced Patient E-mail Access on Patient-Physician Communication and Satisfaction.”

The study is funded by a research grant from the Intel Corp. and is being directed by David Stern, assistant professor of internal medicine at the Ann Arbor Veterans Administration Hospital and the U-M Health System. The grant was announced Oct. 27 at Intel’s Internet Health Day event in San Francisco.

Stern and a group of researchers from CHOICES (the Consortium for Health Outcomes, Innovation, and Cost Effectiveness Studies) hope to answer the following questions:

• How does e-mail affect the satisfaction of patients and physicians?

• How does e-mail affect the volume of telephone calls, visits and overall efficiency of the organization?

• What are the most compelling transaction types for health care e-mail users?

The efficiency and timing of communication between patients, triage nurses, physicians and other units within the health system also will be evaluated.

“Patients and doctors are all very busy these days,” Stern says. “There’s nothing more frustrating than playing phone tag with your doctor when you’re trying to get important information about your health. Our study is looking at ways in which communication by e-mail can provide a more efficient flow of information while improving patient and physician satisfaction.”

Resident physicians in the Department of Internal Medicine will be randomized into two groups: “access” to e-mail and “control.” Those in the access group will have professional cards printed with an alias of their e-mail addresses on them, allowing patients to send them e-mail through a central “nurse triage” resource account. The physicians also will participate in routine training to encourage the use of e-mail with patients and to learn about the e-mail triage system that will be employed in the study.

To add structure to the study and simplify data collection, the concept of “transactional e-mail” has been introduced. Using transactional e-mail, patients will be able to perform many common tasks such as prescription refills, questions to the doctor, referral requests, billing inquiries and lab test result requests.

Patients of the “access” physicians will be encouraged to use e-mail through their own existing e-mail channels at work or at home. Throughout the study period, data will be collected from physicians and patients regarding e-mail volume, phone call volume, visit volume, e-mail content, patient satisfaction and physician satisfaction.

Internet Health Day was developed by Intel to provide a forum for news and discussion surrounding the fast-emerging Internet Health field. Internet Health Day is co-sponsored by the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

For more information on the study, contact CHOICES, 647-8094, or send e-mail to camoyer@umich.edu.

 


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