Foreseeing outbreak of e-mails to doctors

The Baltimore Sun

I used to think no one in the whole world hated e-mail more than me, but that turns out to be wrong.

Doctors, it seems, really hate e-mail.

In fact, a new survey shows only 31 percent of doctors use e-mail to answer questions from patients outside the office.

The rest still prefer the time-honored method of having a bored receptionist take your call, then calling you back days later, usually after your symptoms have subsided.

According to a recent Associated Press article on the survey, there are lots of reasons doctors don't like e-mail.

Some are afraid patients will bombard them with stupid, trivial questions, which they'll have to spend hours answering - with no reimbursement from the insurance companies.

And they're probably right about this.

Look, we all know people who go running to the doctor every time they cough or sneeze or get an upset stomach.

Now imagine giving those same people a computer and a doctor's e-mail address.

Are you kidding?

For a hypochondriac, that's like a kid waking up on Christmas morning to a new bike and train set.

Pretty soon, these people would start sending their doctors hundreds of e-mails each day that said: "Dry, wheezing cough has become wet, hacking cough - cancer?" or "Up all night, sinus condition worsening. Is this the end?"

(And it won't just be loony hypochondriacs messaging. With e-mail, doctors will also be getting those snappy messages that begin: "Dearest One, I am requiring a small favor in the transfer of $50,000,000 U.S. from my country of Sierra Leone. For this I am willing to present the sum of $10 million U.S. to the most gracious soul who assists me.")

Doctors are also concerned about liability issues that could arise from e-mail exchanges with patients. And here again, they probably have a point.

What if someone complains in an e-mail about lower abdominal pain and the doctor doesn't check his inbox that evening, and the patient ends up in the emergency room with a ruptured appendix?

Think the doctor might be hearing from a few lawyers after that?

Think his liability insurance rates might go up a tad?

On the other hand, patients really get upset when they can't get in contact with their doctors, especially when it's just to have a quick question answered.

I remember trying to reach a doctor years ago when I had a bad ear infection.

It was a Saturday in summer. All I wanted to know was this: Should I renew a prescription for antibiotics?

I called the first time and the receptionist said: "The doctor's seeing a patient right now. Call back."

I called the second time and the receptionist said: "You wouldn't believe how busy it is in here. The doctor's running around with his hair on fire. Call back."

I waited a couple of hours and called a third time and got a recording saying: "The office is now closed and will re-open Monday morning."

Well, thank you very much. Have a nice weekend.

Me, I'll try to do the same. Just hope my eardrum doesn't burst while I'm firing up the grill.

Anyway, the bottom line on e-mail access to doctors is this: More and more patients are clamoring for it.

Which means more and more doctors will cave in and give it to them. And that's when the real fun will begin for these docs.

Oh, if they think they're busy now, wait until they start going through their inbox on their lunch break or after office hours.

Panicky moms with feverish toddlers howling over their shoulder will be e-mailing them 10 times a day.

The hypochondriacs will be messaging 20 times a day.

Then there will be hundreds of other e-mails from patients inquiring about lab results, prescriptions, appointment changes, directions to the office, new symptoms, old symptoms, future symptoms.

The doctor's office will never be the same.

The only ones smiling will be the receptionists.

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