Jack Maypole, MD
Jack Maypole, MD
Director
Comprehensive Care Program, Boston Medical Center
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Email With Your Child’s Doctor

Six ways to do it best

You've Got Mail - CartoonEmail between doctor and patient. Or pediatrician and patient’s parents, in the case of children. Who’d ever think it would become what it is today? Blessing or curse? Fabulous timesaver or unmitigated time suck? Super sweet way to link up without the deviltry of voicemail recordings? And, in the right hands, used the right way, could the powers of email ever be used to communicate with a doc about health, behavior or school matters? Answer to all of the above: Yes! (Yes…but. Read on…)

The blessings of email between doctor and a patient’s parents can be convenience, conciseness and a quick response. But the curses lurking are miscommunication, disappointment or, worse, a dropped ball or bad outcome.

To get the most out of this new, pervasive method of communication, here are six easy tips to remember when using email to communicate with your child’s doctor. (Hold on to the initial letter in each tip—you’ll see why at the end!)

Tip 1: Identify your child.

Sounds dumb, but we doctors are much more familiar with the child than with her parents. And quirky email addresses and families with different last names, mixed with the reality of seeing dozens of children a day, make it essential to be extra clear. Always give your child’s name and date of birth.

Tip 2: When possible, keep it succinct—two paragraphs or less.

In life, editing is a good thing. In email, less can be more. From my experience, patient e-communication should strive to come in at two paragraphs or less.
For physicians, there will always be asymmetry; parents or patients will always out-write us. Family members have (potentially) acres more detail available to narrate the story of their concerns, philosophies or anxieties about an issue. But a pediatrician may see thousands of patients, making even the most diligent among us pressed for time. Boil it down: What is the concern? When did it start? What have you tried so far? How did it work?
Answer those questions, and we are well on our way.

*Exception to this rule: Some long emails can be entirely appropriate. I have had parents provide critical backstory to complex problems that communicate details too hot to disclose in the clinic, or even by phone. For example, some parents struggling with an emotional or behavioral issue at school can email in advance of a visit: This helps us use the time in the office much more efficiently.

Tip 3: Keep it real.

Patients and parents should remember that as soon as it is sent, an email can become part of the patient’s medical record. In many practices, emails are routinely printed or copied into a patient’s chart, whether digital or hard copy.

Tip 4: Use it respectfully.

Email is not Facebook. Or Twitter. I urge parents and Web-enabled tweens and teens to exercise restraint. I think two e-messages (or less!) a month is reasonable. If a family needs more than that, it’s time for a phone call or perhaps a visit. Unsure? Just ask.

Tip 5: Beware attachments!

Documents? Stuff to be filled out? Parents should ask in advance what works best for their children’s practice. Some pediatricians and family doctors invite submissions, evaluations or school forms via email; some don’t. Some larger HMO-type organizations have well-established “patient portals,” where documents can be submitted and returned to patients electronically. That rocks…but is a far cry from the reality of smaller practices or clinics in the community.

Tip 6: Accurate concerns.

Email is not a great tool for inquiring about an urgent concern, urgent emotional or behavioral problem or acute illness. I counsel parents to call with time-sensitive questions if, for example, their child had a fall, if their infant or toddler has a fever or if their asthmatic is having a spot of trouble. Emails can go unseen in an inbox for hours or days. Quick turnaround time should not be expected (or guaranteed) for that reason. But, if you want to know if you can give yogurt to your infant, if ointment or cream is better for a rash, or how many hours your 9-year-old should be sleeping, email away.

Now here’s where we see how closely you’ve been paying attention! By following this rhyming mnemonic, I-W-K-U-B-A, corresponding to the initial letter in each of the tips, you’ll be writing pithy, accurate and precise emails to your child’s provider in a sustainable, responsible and healthful way in no time. Proper email technique can offer you and your child’s primary care provider a better way to communicate between, and perhaps during, visits to the office.

For additional suggestions on email from the American Academy of Pediatrics, check out this podcast from “A Minute for Kids.”