E-Patient Update: Patient-Doctor Communication Still Needs an Update

A few weeks ago, I called my PCP’s after-hours line to address an urgent medical concern. The staff at the answering service took my name, reached out to the doctor on call and when he was ready, connected him to me.

While this procedure was entirely standard, as always I found it a bit offputting, as to me it implies that I can’t be trusted to use the doctor’s cell phone number with some discretion. Don’t get me wrong, part of me understands why the doctors in this practice preferred to preserve their privacy and select when they want to speak to patients. On the other hand, however, it makes me uneasy, as I already have a very superficial relationship with my PCP and this approach doesn’t help.

While this is very much an old-school problem, to me it points to a larger one which has largely gone unnoticed as we plunge forward with the evolution of health IT. In theory, we are living in a far more connected world, one which puts not only family and friends but the professionals we work with on far more of a one-to-one basis with us. In practice, however, I continue to feel that patient-doctor communication has benefited from this far less than one might think.

I know, you’re going to point out to me how many doctors are using portals to email with patients these days, and how some even text back and forth with us. I’ve certainly been lucky enough to benefit from the consideration of providers who have reached out via these channels to solve urgent problems. And I know some health organizations — such as Kaiser Permanente — have promoted a culture in which doctors and patients communicate frequently via its portal.

The thing is, I think Kaiser’s experience is the exception that proves the rule. Yes, my doctors have indeed communicated with me directly via portals or cell. But the email and text messages I’ve gotten from them are typically brief, almost pointillistic, or if longer and more detailed, typically written days or even weeks after the original request on my end. In other words, these communications aren’t a big improvement over what they could accomplish with an old-fashioned phone call – other than being asynchronous communication that doesn’t require we hook up in real-time.

In saying this, I’m not faulting the clinicians themselves. Nobody can communicate with everyone all the time, particularly doctors with a large caseload. And I’m certainly not suggesting that I expect them to be Facebook buddies with me and chat about the weather. But it is worth looking at the way in which these communication technologies have seemingly failed to enrich the communication between patient and doctor in many cases.

Until we develop a communication channel for patients and doctors which offers more of the benefits of real-time communication — while helping doctors manage their time as they see fit — I think much of the potential of physician-patient communication by Internet will be wasted. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I do hope we find one.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.