Email Communication With Doctors Spurs Debate on Costs

Only 6 percent of parents said they could currently get email advice from their child's health care provider, according to a survey on the subject.

While parents would be interested in receiving an email response from their child’s health care provider for a minor illness rather than making an office visit, many do not want to pay for that access, according to the findings of the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on children’s health.

The survey found that 48 percent of respondents feel that online consultation should be free, and 77 percent of parents said they would be likely to seek email advice for their children’s minor illness if that service were available.

"Most parents know it can be inconvenient to schedule and get to an office visit for a sick child. An email consultation would prevent the hassles of scheduling and allow sick children to remain at home. Email also could be available after hours when their caregiver’s office is closed," Sarah J. Clark, associate director of the National Poll on Children’s Health and associate research scientist in the University of Michigan Department of Pediatrics, said in a statement.

Some health care providers already offer email consultation along with a package of online and electronic services that can include family conferences, texting and Web chats. These often come with a monthly or annual fee, rather than a fee per transaction. Only 6 percent of parents said they could currently get email advice from their child's health care provider.

"Providers also worry about creating an expectation that they are on call to answer emails at all hours of the day. No one wants a child’s care delayed if an email can’t be answered right away," Clark said. "Given the overwhelming desire from parents for an email option, we hope these poll results can get the discussion started on the best way to use technology to get better, more convenient care options for young patients but still provide a workable solution for both providers and parents."

Parents in the survey of 1,420 respondents with a child up to age 17 reported a range of co-pays charged for office visits, from nothing to $30 per visit. But about half those polled said that any charge for an email consultation should be less than that of an office visit.

Providers argue that parents do not appreciate the unseen workload of email consultation such as reviewing the child’s medical history and documenting the email exchange within the child’s medical record. Clark noted the results of this poll mirrored concerns that health care providers have expressed about email consultation.