The real reason you can’t send your doctor an email

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The other day, I had a question about a medication my doctor had prescribed. I got online and read some respected web resources, and then, for good measure, I headed out the door to see my pharmacist. Weirdly enough, the doctor who’d told me to take the medicine in the first place (and who knows important information like my symptoms, health issues, and other medications I’m taking), wasn’t involved in the process at all: unless I made – and paid for – an appointment to see her, I had no way to ask her my question.

It’s not that my doctor is a bad or neglectful one; this is de rigueur for many of us. Although there are people who have a close relationship with their MD, or maybe certain organizations, hospitals, and clinics who give patients a way to directly contact their doctor, for most patients, once you leave that office you’re on your own.

I thought the reason would be a this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-things-type deal: doctors are already busy, and if every patient could contact them whenever they wanted, the sheer number of messages (many of them possibly unnecessary) they’d get in a single day would probably be enough to make them sick.

But it turns out that I’m wrong. In an interesting and troubling article, Melissa Jayne Kinsey writes that various studies have shown doctors who were reachable by email reported no increase in workload, and – surprisingly – no huge amount of emails anyway.

So, then, what’s the deal? Maybe healthcare professionals understand that, okay, most people won’t bombard them with questions all the time, but they still can’t take the idea of the exceptional few who would?

Nope. Sadly, as tends to be the case with most things in our world, it’s about money. Kinsey writes that, since there isn’t a way for most doctors to bill the time they spend answering emails, they won’t do it.

This makes me really, really sad. I mean, aren’t doctors supposed to help people? But then again, of course, would you want to do work and not get paid – no matter how devoted you are to your job?

Luckily, there are some organizations that have found ways to compensate doctors for answering emails – and there are others, including the US government, that are trying to find an effective way to do so. For now, though, it seems like for most of us, communicating with our doctors via email is just as hard as it would be to exchange messages with our favorite celebrity. And that’s a shame, as well – I might feel just a little better about this whole situation if I knew I had an email from Conan O’Brien waiting in my inbox.

Alysa Salzberg

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