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What sort of policy do I need to email with patients?

August 5, 2014
Question:

Hi Jennifer,

My practice sends out appointment reminders, bills and answers quick questions from our patients using email.  What sort of policy should I have in place for my staff and patients?
 
Thanks!
 
Dr. K.
 
Answer: 

(provided by Erica Youngerman, Esq.)

More and more practices are utilizing email to reach out to their patients and offer instant access.  First of all, you should ensure that you have an updated HIPAA compliant Privacy Policy and consent form in place that includes the patient’s consent to email communication. 
 
Second, I recommend having a policy in place that you could send to patients who email you, post on your website and provide to patients in the office that deals exclusively with email usage as there are several conditions, guidelines and risks that should be addressed.  For example, when told that they may contact you by email, some patients may be under the mistaken impression that you, like many people, are carrying your smart phone at all times and checking and responding to your emails immediately.  As a result, a patient may email you in an emergency and delay necessary care.  It is vital that your patients be informed that email is not the appropriate communication tool for emergencies and that they should be calling 911.  Additionally, your policy should educate your patients on reasonable expectations for response time, appropriate topics for email communication, proper email format, who may be responding or viewing their emails, the fact that the emails will be included in the medical record and many other conditions and guidelines for email usage. 
 
An email policy is also recommended in order to advise your patients of some of the risks of email communication.  For example, if a patient is emailing you from their office computer, their office may have a policy that allows that patient’s employer access to email communication, thereby compromising the confidential nature of their communication.  Additional risks include interception, unintended recipients, viruses and many other substantial risks.
 
For assistance developing an email policy that is right for your office, give us a call.  Erica Youngerman may be reached at (516) 747-6700 x. 308 or at EYoungerman@Kirschenbaumesq.com and Jennifer may be reached at x. 302 or  Jennifer@kirschenbaumesq.com

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