Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More
It is, in general, difficult to coorespond with health care professionals. You’d think that technologies like email would make it easier for patients to ask doctors questions and get those questions answered but the majority of doctors are unwilling to engage in such conversations. There are a variety of reasons for why this is so, not the least of which is HIPPA, the federal legislation that mandates a high level of security and accountability be met concerning anything that belongs in a medical record. Doctors choosing to answer emails sent unencrypted across the Internet are probably breaking federal law, although their actual relunctance to use email may be due to more prosaic reasons. This interesting article summarizing the use of email by physicians suggests that less than 40% of them will use email with patients, and the remainder are afraid that they’ll: be innundated with stupid questions; respond too late to an emergency; be sued for malpractice; be sued for violating privacy laws, and; never be reimbursed for services. Most of these liability issues could be addressed by having patients sign a simple communications agreement, perhaps at the time they enter a given doctor’s care. No agreement can address the security concerns that are associated with sending unencrypted email over the net, however. Such security concerns require a different sort of solution; one more technical in nature. Rather than sending emails in the traditional manner, each patient could simply have an account on their clinic’s secure (SSL) website and log into that account to ask questions and interact with their medical information. Doctors could safely answer questions that are left (or their staff could) becuase under such a setup the questions and answers would never be sent out across the net in unencrypted form.