E-mailing your patients: The dos and don'ts

July 1, 2010

With more and more doctors making use of e-mail, it is important to learn proper etiquette when communicating with patients.

Key Points

With more and more doctors making use of e-mail, it is important to learn proper etiquette when communicating with patients. For this article, we interviewed Peggy Post, the foremost expert on proper, modern etiquette both on and off the Internet. Post, great granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post, is the director of the Emily Post Institute.

Before beginning e-mail correspondence with patients, it is a good idea to have your e-mail policy clearly stated in your practice brochure and on your Web site. Let patients know what kind of questions you are willing to accept via e-mail, whether you will refill prescriptions, and that e-mail is not to be used in an emergency situation. Most doctors will use e-mail to answer clinical questions, to discuss symptoms and treatment options, and to determine whether an office appointment is necessary. Additionally, it is not just good etiquette but also a good practice to avoid responding with medical information to e-mails from people who are not existing patients.

E-mail writing tips

An e-mail to a patient should not be a quick, dashed-off note. Here are some points to consider when composing a message.

Use a greeting. Post suggests that each e-mail begin with a greeting, generally the recipient's name. If you start an e-mail without a greeting, you run the risk of seeming impolite or impatient. She also recommends that you fill in the subject line and that it accurately reflects the contents and nature of your message. Post believes that this will go a long way to ensure that your e-mail gets the attention and consideration it deserves.

Less is more. Post advises physicians to be as concise as possible. Brevity also increases your chance of receiving a timely reply.

Respond promptly. Post also recommends that e-mails from patients be answered in a timely fashion. If you know that you will not have access to the Internet, use an automatic reply that gives the sender notice that you are unable to answer e-mail, and give the date when you will return. Also, provide the name and contact information of someone in your office who your patient may contact in your absence.

Refrain from using all caps. Writing in all capital letters is considered shouting and can be annoying and difficult to read. A possible exception to this rule: If a patient sends an e-mail message containing multiple questions, you can hit the reply button and type your answers in capital letters following each question.

Don't abbreviate. Post advises physicians to avoid abbreviations, such as BTW (by the way), or emoticons (such as :)), as the patient might not be able to decipher these abbreviations and symbols.

Confirm receipt. If you want to know whether an e-mail was received, it is better to ask the recipient to respond once they have read your message. One of the benefits of e-mail is that you can save a message and your response in your chart or move it to your electronic medical record.

Proofread your message. Post says that many don't bother to proofread e-mails before sending them. Let's not forget that we are professionals, and a typo sends a message to our patients that we aren't attentive to detail and that this inattentiveness may carry over to our medical care.

Include a closer. It is proper etiquette to add closure to e-mails. List your name and provide contact information so that patients can reach you if the e-mail does not answer their needs.

Be mindful of tone. Post's final advice is keep your tone considerate, respectful, and honest. She suggests that doctors apply their good bedside manner in their e-mails. An example would be to use some pleasantries in your e-mails, such as "Thank you."

Bottom line: Physicians are going to need to become comfortable communicating with their patients via e-mail. If we follow a few principles of etiquette-consideration, respect, and honesty-then e-mail can serve as an effective means of communication.

The Bottom Line

Neil H. Baum, MDDr. Baum is a urologist in private practice in New Orleans. He is the author of Marketing Your Clinical Practice-Ethically, Effectively, and Economically.

Robert A. Dowling, MDDr. Dowling is medical director of Urology Associates of North Texas, a 48-physician, community- based, single-specialty group in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.