It's important to stay abreast of the latest trends and preferences in patient communication and medical care as a whole. However, it's equally vital to maintain appropriate professional boundaries and adhere to the applicable laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. How can physicians navigate an increasingly plugged-in world and stay both efficient and compliant?

First of all, patients may increasingly expect digital communications from physicians. When even the corner laundromat is likely to have an online presence, and maybe even an app, these expectations patients have as consumers of other services transfer to health care. Physician practices are exploring their options for digital contact in ways ranging from emailing patients all the way up to telemedicine through Skype or a similar program. This can increase efficiency, but it's also important to be clear about what is appropriate and practical for each situation.

Is it legal?
Many physicians wonder whether it's even legal to communicate with patients online. Indeed, according to Family Practice News, there's a rumor going around that the new HIPAA rules have made e-mail contact between provider and patient illegal. This is not the case. To quote a statement from the official HIPAA FAQ:

"Patients may initiate communications with a provider using e-mail. If this situation occurs, the health care provider can assume (unless the patient has explicitly stated otherwise) that e-mail communications are acceptable to the individual."

Physicians are free to respond with a message explaining the risks of using unencrypted email or their own concerns about liability. Patients can then choose whether to communicate by e-mail after having all the necessary information.

Can it help?
Physicians may also wonder whether online communications are worth much to them in the long run. As it turns out, many practices experience much more than just a full inbox. Patients who can use e-mail to communicate with their physicians are less likely to call with questions, which saves work for receptionists and nurses. They may also be less likely to schedule visits that aren't strictly necessary. This can help a practice see patients who are in need of care rather than those who may be worried about a normal issue. It may make a practice more efficient and able to see many more patients over the course of a day.

It is also possible for practices to use encrypted e-mail or even dedicated messaging websites to communicate with patients. This can put fears about HIPAA compliance to rest for physicians and ensure patients understand their communications are truly private.

Communication and financial health
Practices that employ electronic communications can find certain financial benefits result from this strategy. Satisfying patients' expectations can lead to higher rates of retention, and can also be a source of referrals. Patients who are excited about their ability to shoot a quick message to their doctors about whether they need to come in or informing them they need to change an appointment may be likely to tell their friends and family of the kind of convenience they enjoy. This can lead to a higher patient volume, which is a boon to revenue cycle management.

Furthermore, catching issues that don't seem big enough to warrant an office visit through e-mail before they become emergencies can also help a practice's financial health. When physicians perform procedures on self-pay or high-deductible patients who can't afford to pay the full cost of their care, practices lose money. Early intervention is usually cheaper, meaning patients may be able to afford the entire bill and help keep a practice's finances balanced.