The New York Times ran a couple of articles at the first of December illustrating the need for doctors to behave appropriately and listing the six habits of highly respectful physicians. Although neither of these articles mention online communications, I believe some paralells can be drawn as to how doctors should communicate with patients online.

First, I think it’s important to acknowledge the role that electronic health records and secure messaging between physicians and patients can have to improve the doctor patient relationship and the patients overall health.  In the next five years we are going to see more and more doctor-patient communication move online and hopefully see more health care team communication move online (think of a facebook like social network all about your health where your nurses, primary care docs, pharmacists, specialists and you can all keep each other up to date about your health).

In this new era it will be important for your doctor and your health care team to exercise appropriate online etiquette to maximize their relationships with you and each other.  Here are some online etiquette tips that a doctor should follow:

  1. Respond quickly  to patients online questions. Tell your patient you or a member of your team will respond within XX hours (24 or less hopefully) and have a work flow set-up to ensure that you meet that goal.
  2. Respond fully to patients online. Take the time to write in complete sentences in language that your patients will understand. In my day to day work i communicate with some doctors over email who reply to me over email in cryptic short bursts of information which if I didn’t know better would leave me thinking they were upset, not just overworked.
  3. Check off and share health care alerts with your patients. Have an automated system for sharing troubling health care issues with your patients and information on solving their health care problems.
  4. Prescribe information online.  Just like patients need prescriptions, links to online information can be a great way to inform the patient and let them make informed decisions about their health care.
  5. Confer with other health team members online. Find a way to create a social health care network where specialists, pharmacists and therapists can all communicate online with each other about the patient.

Eventually a form of online etiquette may need to be taught in Continuing Medical Education and in Medical School to help standardize the appropriate way to communicate with your patients online.

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