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Consumer Reports: Be prepared to start getting email from your doctor

Though they may be late to the party, you can expect your doctors to join your bank, your credit card company, your insurance company and probably even your supermarket and hairdresser in connecting with you online, according to Consumer Reports. In fact, you may find your doctor actively encouraging you to send her an email.

Why? Starting this year, doctors and certain other health care providers are eligible for financial incentives under a program run by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services if they make electronic health records available to patients online – and if they communicate with them online. What’s more, they have to make sure that at least 5 percent of their patients use the technology.

Patient portals aren’t perfect, and there are bound to be glitches as more doctors and patients start using them. And the government program is voluntary, so not all health care professionals will have one. Still, if a portal is available to you, there are good reasons for you to give it a try:

• Portals put your health in your hands. Electronic health records and patient portals “break down the hierarchical doctor-patient relationship, where the patient’s health information goes to the doctor and the doctor controls when and how the patient sees it,” says Dr. Julie Hollberg, chief medical information officer at Emory Health Care in Atlanta. “The hope is that portals will engage patients in their own health care and change the relationship to more of a patient-provider partnership.”

• Managing chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and congestive heart failure is easier when doctors and patients have access to the same data.

A study by Kaiser Permanente researchers found that patients with diabetes who emailed their doctors received better care compared with those who didn’t. And just being able to access your health data whenever you want can help you remember details about your health or improve understanding.

• They’re convenient. You can get the information you need when it’s convenient for you, not your doctor. Avoiding phone tag – either when making an appointment or getting information – is another perk.

Depending on the doctors or the system their offices use, all emails may go to administrative staff members, who then direct them to the appropriate person or department. Or you may be able to send emails individually to the front desk for appointments, the doctor’s nurse or assistant for prescription refills, the billing office if you have a payment question or directly to your doctor.

• Accurate records. Patients remember less than half of what they’re told in the office or on the phone, experts say. But if the information is in your electronic health record or an email, you can read it, digest it and refer back to it when needed. If you spot any errors, you can alert your doctor.

• Faster feedback. Under the government guidelines, lab results must be posted in the patient portal within 96 hours of the doctor’s office receiving them, whether your doctor has seen the results or not. That means no more waiting for him to call you with results or send them to you by snail mail.

It also eliminates the practice some doctors have of notifying you only if something is wrong or just leaving you with a vague “everything looks good.”

• More rewarding visits. It may seem impersonal, but online interactions can improve the doctor-patient relationship, Consumer Reports says.

Portals let you stay in touch with your doctor more frequently. It can even “extend” the office visit. Patient portals are not meant to replace face-to-face visits, though. Even for the most tech-savvy patient, there will always be times when that office visit or phone call is best. Those options aren’t going away.