Just because we use email daily to communicate doesn't mean that it is the best communication method between healthcare providers and patients. The challenge is to get both the provider and the patient to appreciate the risk in e-mail exchanges.
Mary was looking forward to the course next week, “Ready to leave your job?”
Unfortunately, Mary used her work email address to register for the course. Now she was getting emails at work about looking for a new job. What if her boss or co-workers saw the emails?
Then, she thought, what if she had asked her doctor’s office to send her an email to remind her of her counseling appointments?
Sending personal information into cyberspace is like writing on the back of a postcard. Anyone can see it! It doesn’t need to have detailed personal information to be private or important to us.
Below is an outline for discussion that you can use to help you decide if using email with patients is the right choice for your practice.
What are the steps to use email with patients?
- Plan. Establish clear policies and procedures about when you will – and when you won’t – use email with patients in your practice. The provider is responsible for disclosure of information and to ensure reasonable safeguards. On a case by case basis, one needs to determine what is reasonable. You need to balance the risk with the benefit of disclosing the health information. If you aren't prepared to put in the energy (and it takes effort!) to put in a comprehensive risk mitigation program, then you should not be using email to send health information or other sensitive information.
Remember- even a plain email confirming an appointment at a clinic can be sensitive if it seen by the wrong person at the wrong time!
- Educate. Establish clear, consistent, easy to read and understand education to the patient about the risks of using email for sending health information. Even then, the healthcare provider, as the person of authority, still maintains the responsibility for the security of the information.
- Authorize. The patient must provide their personal email address and authorize the use of email as a method of contact and the specific purpose that the email address may be used. This infers to me that the first contact with the patient cannot be by email.
Help patients understand their important role in maintaining their personal privacy.
Here is a sample authorization form that you can use:
Patient Authorization for E-Mail Communication SAMPLE
- I would like to communicate by e-mail with my provider.
- I have been given information guidelines about how to e-mail with my provider and have been given the opportunity to ask questions.
- I will only use my personal e-mail address and personal devices to communicate with my provider (i.e. will not use work/school e-mail address or public computer as personal information could be viewed by others).
- I will be responsible for maintaining any information regarding my care that I have saved onto my personal computer.
- I understand that my email authorization and a copy of the e-mail guidelines I have received will be called my permanent medical record.
- I agree to follow the guidelines for e-mail communication of my provider and will use e-mail for nonemergency purposes only.
- E-mails containing transitory information (routine or short-term transactions, and contain little or no information of ongoing value, i.e. confirmation of appointments) will be securely deleted by the Clinic.
- E-mail correspondence containing clinical or significant information will be entered into my permanent medical record by the provider.
- I agree to inform my provider in writing if my e-mail address changes.
- I understand that the Clinic will normally respond to email communications within ____ hours (or business days). If I have not heard from the Clinic by this time, I will phone the Clinic. This email communication may be read by someone that the provider has assigned to preview or respond to in his absence.
It is a challenge to get both the provider and the patient to appreciate the risk in e-mail exchanges and the public nature of the exchange. Walk carefully through this mine field if you go at all.
See our e-book, Can You Use Text Messaging With Your Patients for more tips, tools, and templates you can use right away!