• e-mail;
  • utilization;
  • primary care;
  • on-line communication;
  • patient-provider communication

OBJECTIVES: E-mail communication between patients and their providers has diffused slowly in clinical practice. To address concerns about the use of this technology, we performed a randomized controlled trial of a triage-based e-mail system in primary care.

DESIGN AND PATIENTS/PARTICIPANTS: Physicians in 2 university-affiliated primary care centers were randomized to a triage-based e-mail system promoted to their patients. E-mails from patients of intervention physicians were routed to a central account and parsed to the appropriate staff for response. Control group physicians and their patients did not have access to the system. We collected information on patient e-mail use, phone calls, and visit distribution by physician over the 10 months and performed physician and patient surveys to examine attitudes about communication.

RESULTS: E-mail volume was greater for intervention versus control physicians (46 weekly e-mails per 100 scheduled visits vs 9 in the control group at the study midpoint; P < .01) but there were no between-group differences in phone volume (67 weekly phone calls per 100 scheduled visits vs 55 in the control group; P = .45) or rates of patient no-shows (5% in both groups; P = .77). Intervention physicians reported more favorable attitudes toward electronic communication than did control physicians but there were no differences in attitudes toward patient or staff communication in general. There were few between-group differences in patient attitudes toward electronic communication or communication in general.

CONCLUSIONS: E-mail generated through a triage-based system did not appear to substitute for phone communication or to reduce visit no-shows in a primary care setting. Physicians' attitudes toward electronic communication were improved, but physicians' and patients' attitudes toward general communication did not change. Growth of e-mail communication in primary care settings may not improve the efficiency of clinical care.