Hitting a Nerve

Dialing down the negativity


I don’t do email. Or texting. You want to talk to me and my staff? Pick up a phone.

Some people say I’m old fashioned, or not patient-friendly, or whatever.

I don’t care.

To me there are too many issues with things that can get missed in emails, too many security concerns, too many ways to alter them so it looks like something different was said.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

Now, a recent study of an EHR system found that 3% of emails from patients had negative, if not downright nasty, sentiments expressed to their physicians.

Here’s some examples:

“I hope and expect that you will spend eternity in hell. You are an abusive, nasty, cheap person.”

“Your office is full of liars, hypocrites and I will do everything in my power to prevent anyone from going to your bullsh** office again.”

The study also noted that the most common expletive used by patients is the F-bomb, and that words with violent connotations, such as “shoot,” “fight,” and “kill” were often used in such emails. The last are definitely concerning in an era of increased violence directed at doctors and other health care workers who are just trying to do their jobs.

Now, I know doctors are a microcosm of society. Like patients, most are decent people trying their best, but a few are ... not particularly nice.

But still, I don’t think we, or anyone for that matter, need to be getting emails of this nature. It certainly doesn’t put anyone in a good position, or allow for objective, unbiased, care. Even if they’re only 3% of emails, that can still be quite a few.

Who needs that?

One of the issues with email is that it’s easy to type something nasty and hit “send,” then later have it occur to you that maybe you should have calmed down first. Granted, that sort of thing can (and does) happen when talking to another person (by phone or in person), but it’s harder.

Direct personal contact, especially face-to-face, appears to lessen impulsive reactions for most. The other person isn’t an invisible email address, they’re someone you’re talking to. You can read tone-of-voice and facial expressions. Again, I’m aware people still can lose their cool in person, but it’s harder.

In-person communication, or on the phone, adds a greater chance to reason through things, explain misunderstandings, and clarify statements rather than just hitting send and running into the next exam room. Plus, it ensures that all noncritical patient interactions occur during business hours, when we’re in doctor mode, rather than at 2:45 a.m. when we look at the iPhone while waiting for the dog to come back in. That’s a terrible time to receive and send medical (or any) emails for both doctor and patient.

A lot rides on every one of my patient interactions, and that’s why I still want them done directly. If that makes me old-fashioned, so be it.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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