The University Record, October 25, 1999

U-M study finds patients and physicians encourage e-mail use

By Kara Gavin
Health System Public Relations

Although 40 percent of general medicine clinic patients regularly use e-mail, only 14 percent of them have used it to communicate with their doctors, a recent survey by researchers at the Health System has found.

But patients say they want e-mail access to their doctors: 70 percent of those surveyed (both e-mail users and non-users) said they would like to communicate with their health care provider via e-mail.

At the same time, 83 percent of the patients’ physicians said they thought e-mail was a good way to answer patients’ non-urgent medical questions, even though only 27 percent said they were currently using e-mail to communicate with patients. These results suggest that there is great opportunity to facilitate electronic communication between patients and their doctors.

The survey of 320 patients and 75 resident physicians was conducted at the outset of a larger study at the U-M and the Ann Arbor Veterans Affairs Hospital, which now will evaluate a specially designed e-mail system that facilitates electronic communication between patients and physicians.

EMAIL (Electronic Messaging, Advice and Information Link) allows patients to communicate with their doctors through an electronic triage system about such things as appointment times, referrals, prescription renewals and general health questions. The preliminary survey was conducted to determine baseline e-mail use patterns and attitudes toward the use of e-mail.

The EMAIL study, directed by David Stern, assistant professor of internal medicine, and Steven Katz, assistant professor of internal medicine and of health management and policy, was introduced in the U-M General Medicine Clinic in August 1999. All resident physicians with on-site clinics are participating and have been randomized into a “study group” and a “control group.” Patients of the physicians in the study group receive detailed information about the new system and are encouraged to use it.

The goals of the study are to identify:

  • Which subjects patients and physicians use e-mail to communicate about most often.

  • How e-mail use may affect the volume of telephone calls, visits and overall efficiency of the organization.

  • How e-mail use influences the satisfaction of patients and physicians, especially with regard to the patient/physician relationship.

  • The efficiency and timing of communication among patients, triage nurses and physicians.

    The study is funded by the Intel Corp. and is a collaborative effort of researchers at CHOICES (the Consortium for Health Outcomes, Innovation, and Cost Effectiveness Studies) and MICHI (the Michigan Collaboratory for Health Informatics) at the University. CHOICES is a research unit funded jointly by the Departments of Internal Medicine and Surgery, devoted to the multidisciplinary study of the quality and economic impact of health care services.

    Results of the baseline survey from the EMAIL study are being presented at Intel’s Internet Health Day II in New York, which explores situations for bringing health care providers into the online world.

    For more information on the EMAIL study, contact CHOICES, 647-8094, send e-mail to camoyer@umich.edu, or visit the Web www.med.umich.edu/choices/.