By Dr. Anthony Policastro

Social media has become pervasive in our interactions with others. This has become even more true since the COVID-19 pandemic began. A good example of that is the rise in virtual office visits.

Some health systems have set up physician-patient interaction via e-mail. Unfortunately, not all e-mails are created equal.

Some e-mails are relatively straightforward. The patient might need to get an appointment. The patient may need to get a prescription refill. The patient might have a medical question that would require an appointment to evaluate further.

Others are more complex. Sometimes a patient may have a new set of symptoms. Putting those into an e-mail for a physician will require the physician to seek more information. The information might require that the physician go to the patient’s chart. There would need to be a decision if the symptoms are due to the patient’s underlying medical issues. There would need to be a decision if the symptoms could be a medication side effect. In either case, more time is required than simply giving a quick e-mail answer.

Sometimes a patient might request a medication change. It might be because of the fact that their current medication is causing side effects. That would require the physician to review the medical record. It would require the physician to choose a new medication. It would require that medication to not have similar side effects to the one causing the problems. It takes more time than simply giving a quick e-mail answer.

Some patients may not have medication insurance. An example of this is the Medicare patient that does not have Part D drug coverage. They know this when they are in the office. However, they neglect to tell the physician. The physician writes the prescription. They go to fill it only to find that it is expensive without a drug plan. They e-mail the physician back asking for a cheaper alternative. It takes time to write a new prescription. It could have been avoided if the patient was respectful of the physician’s time in the first place.

Sometimes a patient might need forms filled out. They would send an e-mail asking for the forms to be completed. This might be due to a request from an employer related to workman’s compensation. It might be related to the needs that a school has for a student. It might be related to an insurance company requirement. It takes time for the physician to complete the forms.

There are some hospital systems in the country that have decided to start charging patients directly to provide assistance with the more complex type of e-mails. A doctor in Boston indicated that she spends about five hours answering e-mails for each four hours that she actually spends seeing patients.

It is possible that this will become the norm in the future. At the present point in time health insurance companies do not provide this type of coverage. So it will fall on patients to pay the costs.

The bottom line is that we should not take a physician’s time for granted. Being thoughtful about sending e-mails is one way of doing that. For the time being that doesn’t cost the patient anything. It does cost the physician time that could be spent caring for another patient. The bottom line is to be considerate of both the physician and other patients’ time.