North Carolina Policyholders: Notice to policyholders recently affected by severe weather. 

What to Consider When Emailing Patients

If you choose to communicate with patients via email, you should consider establishing communication policies and procedures that include guidelines.

Email has been widely used by both business and the general public for much of the last 20 years, and reliance on it has found its way into the daily lives of millions. And now, email has become even more accessible because of the smart phone.  

If you choose to communicate with patients via email, you should consider establishing communication policies and procedures that include guidelines such as:

  1. Establish a written policy including assigning a designated person to whom these emails should be sent.
  2. Obtain a signed consent form from the patient(s) you will be communicating with via email.
  3. Add a disclaimer to all emails advising the patient you have received their email and include a time frame for when they should expect a response.
  4. Advise patients in writing that emails should not be used for emergencies.
  5. Educate staff and patients that emails containing any clinical information will remain a permanent part of the patient’s medical record.

HIPAA and Email

The HIPAA Security Standards require practices to protect the privacy of patient health information (PHI). However patient safety and privacy can easily be jeopardized through electronic devices.

For example:

A long-time patient emailed her cardiologist to report a potentially serious side effect of a newly prescribed cardiac medication. The physician had told the patient to contact him immediately if she experienced any symptoms after starting the drug therapy. This patient and her cardiologist had routinely communicated via email between office visits. However, the day she emailed him, the cardiologist was out of town attending a conference. The practice had no system in place for checking the physician’s incoming emails in his absence. The patient  was found nonresponsive the evening she sent the email and was rushed to the hospital by ambulance in extremis. By the time the cardiologist returned and read her email, the patient had been hospitalized. She never fully regained consciousness and died four days after the physician returned.

As the scenario shows, parameters must be established in practice for how email will be used. For example, this situation might have been avoided had the physician had an out-of-office message reply on his email. It is essential that PHI remain secure, patient care and safety is uncompromised, and practice policies are communicated with staff.

Just as patients are asked for their contact information, they should be asked at their first visit whether the practice may communicate with them via email. These preferences should be checked regularly to ensure the patient’s email address or communication preferences have no change.         

If you have any other questions on about email patients, contact Professional Solutions Insurance Company today. 

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