Reasonable Expectations Part IV: Communicating With Your Vet Via Email

This is the fourth part of an ongoing series describing how people are developing new expectations when it comes to veterinary care for their pets. Parts one through three can be found at http://www.speakingforspot.com/blog.

Have you any interest in emailing rather than calling your vet when you have questions? This is certainly a reasonable expectation assuming that your vet is willing to communicate online. Email communication with doctors is not a new concept.  The Kaiser Permanente “My Health Manager” program with an “email my doctor” feature has been wildly successful.  Not only are more and more patients using the program (and Kaiser is promoting it in their marketing ads), a study on more than 30,000 Kaiser Permanente patients with high blood pressure and/or diabetes documented that those who communicated via email with their physicians enjoyed better health outcomes! 

I recently surveyed 120 of my northern California colleagues about email communication with clients and here is what I learned from them:

•58% of the vets who responded are communicating with their clients via email
•62% of those who use email are selective- they do not provide email access to all of their clients
•26% of those using email set “ground rules” with their clients; interestingly, many commented that they strongly feel the need to set email ground rules, but have been too “wimpy” to do so
•Receptionists communicate with clients via email in 37% of the practices polled
•Technicians (nurses) communicate with clients via email in 21% of the practices polled
•95% of the veterinarians who use email reported it to be a mostly positive experience

The veterinarians using email unanimously reported that it is great for simple, non-urgent communications (emphasis on non-urgent). Just imagine every veterinarian’s nightmare- you check your email in the evening and find a message that is eight hours old from a client describing their pet who is struggling to breathe and has blue gums!  Vets using email enjoy the convenience- for many, not only is email less time consuming than telephoning (avoids phone tag), they can respond to emails at their convenience.  I can relate to this- I sometimes don’t finish up with my patients until 8:30 or 9:00 at night at which point I’m worried that it may be too late to return client phone calls. 

Along with the fear of not receiving urgent messages in a timely fashion, here’s what the vets I surveyed told me they do not like about email:

•Clients wanting a diagnosis via email rather than via an office visit
•No simple or easy process for transferring the email communication to the patient’s medical record
•Too time consuming for vets who have remedial word processing skills or feel the need to carefully edit their “written words”
•Clients who take advantage of the system and begin emailing too much and/or too often
•Receipt of “cutesy” emails (photos or stories that are incredibly cute, but only in the mind of the sender)

I happen to be a speed demon when it comes to word processing, and I would love the flexibility of communicating with my clients in the wee hours of the morning or late into the evening.  So why have I not jumped on the email bandwagon?  If you’ve read Speaking for Spot you know that communication between veterinarians and their clients is a topic near and dear to my heart.  So much of what is perceived during communication has to do with body language and voice inflection, neither of which can be perceived via email (unless I begin Skyping with my clients, God forbid!). I worry that, by using email, I will miss out on what’s happening emotionally for my clients. Even with this concern, the results of my survey have motivated me to dip my baby toe into the email whirlpool.  I think I will invite my clients to email me with really simple questions such as, “When am I supposed to bring Lizzie back in to see you?” or “Is it okay to give Radar his heartworm preventative along with the other medications you prescribed?”  Anything more than that, however, and I’ll be jumping back onto the phone in the blink of an eye. 

Do you communicate with your vet or your physician via email?  If so, what has the experience been like for you?

Now here’s wishing you and your four-legged family members abundant good health. 

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

You can support your favorite rescue group.  The Speaking for Spot Gives Back Program shares a portion of the sales proceeds with approved non-profit organizations when you purchase a book via the Speaking for Spot website and designate the organization at the time of purchase.

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9 Responses to “Reasonable Expectations Part IV: Communicating With Your Vet Via Email”

  1. Ingrid King Says:

    I have mixed feelings about communicating with my vet via e-mail. While I use e-mail extensively for everything and love it, for some reason, I prefer a phonecall when it comes to my pet’s health. And I think it’s precisely for the reasons you mention that make you hesitate to use it with your clients – you can’t read emotion in an e-mail. One client’s “he’s just not himself” could be another client’s “he hasn’t eaten for five days and he’s barely breathing!”

    Depending on how a client views e-mail, use of it can also create the perception of a barrier between client and veterinarian. For clients who don’t like using e-mail, it can send a message that the vet is too busy to talk to them.

    I think the best way to handle this is probably to ask the client how they would prefer to communicate, and note that in the record. For vets, it might also be a good idea to manage expectations by letting the client know that you respond to e-mails within a x-hour window so that they know not to ask any urgent questions via e-mail.

  2. Joanne Ronning Says:

    I utilize a lot of low cost health clinics in my area for routine testing and rabies shots. I always use e-mail to send the results to my regular vet. I find that since I scan all medical information and keep it on a thumb drive that I carry with me, this is a convenient way to share these results with my vet. If I have a question, I use the telephone.

  3. Dr. Tony Johnson Says:

    Thanks for opening up this important topic – I have really enjoyed the series. You have talked about ‘the great unmentionable’ – things we face every day as a profession and that pet owners are concerned about, but never seem to get mention in the popular press. I appreciate the information! If I can ever e of service on emergency topics, please feel free to contact me, or stop by PetConnection.com. Thanks for all you do!

  4. Chris Davis Says:

    I opened this up this morning, without my glasses, and thought it said Communicating with your PET via Email. There was the dog at the computer – I was so excited to see how this was done! Oh well…

    I haven’t corresponded with my vet via email, although I think it might be ok for very basic things. However, if there is something going on with my critter I’d rather chat with the vet on the phone. I’m a quick typist, but it’s still easier to ask a question than type it out.

  5. Natalie Says:

    I type fast so email is more efficient for me than the telephone in many cases plus I like having a record of my question or sending something and the response back for my records. It would allow me to more easily provide information that’s bulky to relay over the telephone and to easily receive copies of test results, which I always request and currently receive by fax.

    So I wish my vet/vet’s office made greater use of email than they currently do. Right now, I can email them but it’s hit or miss when it will be seen and whether it will be responded to. It’s not part of their routine at this point.

    During the last year of Chris’ life, we worked with a cardiologist and we did a lot of our communication by email with only rare visits in person. I actually loved being able to ask her a quick question and to give her updates on his status that way. His condition was chronic so most of the communication was not an emergency. And I requested guidelines from her about what conditions she would consider to be an emergency, which was very helpful in deciding whether we had to rush him to the emergency room. We did once when his heart rate was sustained at more than 200 bpm per the guidelines she set out for us.

    I was able to email her a copy of ECGs done by other vets and once even emailed her a video of Chris to show her a breathing pattern I was concerned about. She went through her email every evening and was very diligent about responding to my questions and concerns. Which earned her a very special place in my heart.

  6. Tammy Says:

    I agree that this can go both ways and there is nothing like a hands-on visit – they are necessary. That being said, I correspond by e-mail with one of my holistic vets to give status updates on how certain things are working. We still see each other about once a month or more, but this allows a little tweaking of remedies in between and I find it helpful and comforting.

    Another long distance holistic (nutritional therapy) vet that I would normally do a phone consult with allows fax \consults\ for less, so I will fax a set of questions and then get a faxed response. We have had a relationship for several years and so he knows how things have been going with my dog and we usually talk by phone 1-2x per year, so an occasional fax works out for what I might need a little suggestion with.

    My regular vet has occasionally sent me an email – typically to check-in after an illness to make sure my dog is recovery well. I find that comforting as well. And another vet asked me to email him with some research I had found and referred to in our face-to-face.

    Yes, I have several vets – specialists, etc. for my two pups.

  7. Nan Says:

    I am deaf. I use the relay service to make telephone calls. The relay service communication assistant (a trained professional) types what is said and speaks to the other party what I type.

    I have used the same vet for more than 10 years. Recently, his office seems to have a staffing problem and some of the folks who answer the phone hang up before I can make a appointment or whatever.

    It is a bit hard to make an appointment by e-mail but I like to receive the e-mail test results and such information. I prefer to get e-mail test results so I can file them on the computer.

    My ferret vet’s office is WONDERFUL about sending me information by e-mail.

  8. N Goodhue Says:

    I design and develop websites and the problem can be remedied. You simple build the information onto a website that has filters with questions that must be selected in order to send the email.

    This way the questions can be directed based on what they apply to or who they apply to.

    If it’s a question about when the next appointment is — this email can be routed to the receptionist. No need to bother the vet with this question.

    In fact any question could be routed through the receptionist and the vet only need be bothered with the emails that could not be answered by the receptionist.

    A disclaimer could also be put on the site that a user agrees to the terms…i.e. – no diagnosis will be made via email, etc. etc.

    First and foremost on the page in BOLD letters could state….If your pet is in distress or experiencing a medical emergency and this is after hours….(directions to follow here — insert)

    I think that about covers the issues. If I’ve left something out or forgotten to address an issue I think you get the jest of it. There are ways to overcome the downsides if this is something that a vet wanted to do.

    Frankly, I love the special attention that my vet offers and I’d rather see her cheery face and take my dog in or even communicate with her terrific staff … I do enough of the email thing during my work hours. Sometimes we just stop in to say hello… this helps the dog realize we don’t just go there to get poked….we have fun and get cookies too!

    Hope this helps!

  9. Jana Rade Says:

    “Jana will probably email you” is an ongoing joke at our vet’s office and gets everybody laughing. We have probably exchanged War and Peace worth by now!

    I love being able to discuss things with our vet via email. Everybody can do it when they have time and everybody has time to think or research what the other party said. This leads to greater understanding of things.

    Our vet takes it even further, he has all patient info online. I can go and look up past conversations, lab reports … anything I need at any time. I love this system and I miss being able to do that with our TCVM vet who doesn’t use this system.

    The system is called VetPort, I think, and I am loving it.

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