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Electronic communication can extend and complement direct patient encounters, improve adherence and access to care, and increase patients' involvement in their care. Email is well-suited for communicating administrative information, medication instructions, patient education, routine laboratory results, and appointment reminders. It can augment home monitoring of treatment plans, such as diabetes care or smoking cessation. Clinicians can make announcements to an entire patient population about vacation coverage, influenza vaccination, changes in referral procedures, withdrawal of medications from the market, and other topics (Table e3–1).

Table e3–1.Some suggested uses of patient–clinician email.

However, using email clinically creates legal, ethical, and practical concerns. Email is more permanent than oral communication but can seem more informal than paper correspondence. It is by its nature self-documenting. An email can be duplicated or forwarded with a few keystrokes and inadequate thought, and copies may linger on intermediate or back-up systems long after the sender and receiver have deleted the originals. The casual nature of email in the absence of nonverbal social cues commonly leads to misunderstandings. Email can be easily altered by the sender, the recipient, or a third party, retrospectively and without attribution. It is very difficult to positively identify the sender or recipient on either end of an email exchange, and with modest technical expertise, it is easy to fabricate an email from most addresses.

Clinicians are sometimes concerned that if their email address becomes widely available, they will be deluged by messages from individuals with whom they have no preexisting therapeutic relationship. Studies have not found the volume of email from unfamiliar patients to be burdensome in practice. However, there is currently no consensus on the clinician's duty in this situation. Additionally, there may be legal consequences to providing advice to patients who are out of state or abroad and thus beyond the scope of the clinician's license. At minimum, clinicians should post electronic communication policies addressing unsolicited communication wherever their email address can be found.

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