May 10, 2010

Parents favor e-mail access to child’s pediatrician, study finds

Given the option, most parents would gladly e-mail their child’s pediatrician with nonurgent questions about minor ailments or symptoms, medication, feeding, sleeping and follow-up appointments, according to a preliminary small survey conducted by Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

The study’s findings were presented May 2 at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, held in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In the survey of 229 parents of children seen at Johns Hopkins, 171 described themselves as regular e-mail users. Of these, nearly 90 percent said they would welcome e-mail as a way to communicate with their child’s doctor; only 11 percent said they currently do so. Three-quarters of the 171 said that e-mail would improve communication and increase contact between parents and doctors.

While e-mail and text messaging remain uncommon in pediatric practices, the Johns Hopkins investigators say that it is likely only a matter of time before their use becomes widespread.

The researchers caution that African-American parents and those with annual household incomes of $30,000 or less were less likely to endorse e-mail as a desired mode of communication with their pediatricians. African-American parents, in particular, were more skeptical than white parents about e-mail and its capability to improve communication with doctors. Black parents were 68 percent less likely than white parents to describe e-mail as a satisfying form of communication, and were 66 percent less likely to endorse it as a good communication device between parents and pediatricians.

Although the study did not explore the reasons for their reluctance, the researchers say that the finding somewhat surprised them and clearly begs further research before adopting e-mail as a mainstream tool of doctor-patient communication.

“The last thing we want to do is inadvertently create a gap in access or communication between those who use e-mail regularly and those who shun it, and before we incorporate e-mail into mainstream medical practice, we need to factor in any racial, cultural or socioeconomic preferences,” said lead researcher Michael Crocetti. Crocetti communicates via e-mail with about a quarter of his patients’ parents.

One-third of the parents surveyed who regularly use e-mail had a child with a chronic condition. Among these parents, 65 percent said they would strongly favor e-mail communication with their pediatrician to improve management of their child’s condition, but less than half said they would be comfortable receiving test results via e-mail.

The Johns Hopkins investigators are planning a study of pediatricians’ attitudes toward e-mail.

Robert Dudas, of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, was co-investigator on the research.