Is Email an Endangered Species?


Forty-five years ago, an engineer in Boston sent an electronic message between two computers some 10 feet apart. It took another 10 years or so before the electronic message was dubbed “email”—a term now perhaps more ubiquitous than any other in the lexicon of modern communication.

And yet despite the seemingly definitive place email communication holds for hospitalists—for messages to one another, missives to hospital administrators, instructions to patients, and myriad other uses—there are those who often wonder if email is outmoded. In a world bent on text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Vine, Periscope, and Google Talk (not to mention dozens of lesser-known services and a seemingly endless string of startups aiming to be the proverbial next big thing), is email old-fashioned or ineffective?

In a word, no.

But that doesn’t mean email is the only communication method in a hospitalist’s toolbox or the best one for every situation. Physicians and communication experts interviewed by The Hospitalist agree that email has a function and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, that function is dependent on trust, urgency, formality, and relationships.

“It has a place in communication, especially for busy hospitals, but the key is to figure out what is that place,” says Vineet Arora, MD, MAPP, FHM, a hospitalist at the University of Chicago, who has spoken at SHM annual meetings on how hospitalists communicate. “All of the information that is coming to you is in a push-pull model … There is information that you want pushed to you because it’s important and you want to see it. And then there is information that you want to pull because perhaps you know it relates to a patient in front of you … Where does email fit into it?”

Communications consultant A.J. Moore, associate professor of communication at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., put it even more bluntly when assuring that email isn’t going anywhere.

“Research shows, and I know I do it myself, the first thing I do in the morning when I pick up my phone is check my email,” he says. “People often check their email before they check the weather, before they check social media.

“Sure, there are other places to go, there’s other ways of communicating. But I still think that email is the center point. It’s the starting line for your communication.”

A Modus for the Medium

Hospitalist Aaron Jacobs, MD, associate chief medical information officer at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, appreciates the academic discussion over the future of email, but he also knows he uses it every day. To him, there are several factors that go into choosing which medium he uses for a particular message.

“It depends on the situation and the message you are sending,” says Dr. Jacobs, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. “If I’m friends with the pediatric nephrologist, I may text him a quick question about a [glomerular filtration rate] or a clinical question. But if I’m not on those terms with another subspecialist, I wouldn’t do that.

“There’s definitely a relationship aspect that is relevant.”

Another factor in choosing to send an email versus a text message versus a tweet is timing. In the days when email was the only alternative to in-person communication or a phone call, the electronic message was the fastest way to reach a person. It was the best way to hold a synchronous conversation. But in today’s era of smartphones, tablets, and even wristwatches that have instant access, email is no longer the fastest option. In fact, email today is best tailored to asynchronous conversations, Dr. Arora says.

“Texting is really more invasive. It’s more demanding of the recipient’s time in an immediate sort of way,” Dr. Jacobs says. “With email, you’re basically saying, ‘Please take a look at this at your convenience, and when you can, write me back.’ In contrast, when people send text messages, they’re typically expecting a response in minutes. This may seem logical and trivial, but it can also be disruptive. Since some texts are urgent, all texts must at least initially be treated as such.”

The urgency that comes with a text message or a direct message on Facebook or Twitter is the flip side of the formality that comes with an email, says Moore.

“Email has more of a professional connotation to it than a Facebook message,” Moore says. “Even if I work with somebody, even if I’m Facebook friends with somebody and that person is one door away from me, if it is a work conversation, I am going to send them an email.”

Formality is the delineation between social media and what Moore half-jokingly calls “professional media.” And while in some ways technology gaps can often be a generational difference, Moore doesn’t see email usage through that prism and certainly not when he’s interacting with the young adults in his classes.

“I look at myself as a professor, and I have that formal relationship with younger people being students. They could find me on social media. There’s nothing preventing them,” he says. “But still they reach out to me via email, and I communicate with them via email.”

That being said, a generational gap does exist that can cause older physicians to refrain from embracing newer technologies that could be effective alternatives to email, says Howard Landa, chief medical information officer of the Alameda Health System in Oakland, Calif., and vice chairman of the board of advisors for the Association of Medical Directors of Information Systems. Many communication tools (Shortmail, Fridge, Apple Mail) either were discontinued, wrapped into larger technologies, or never became mainstream enough to be worthwhile. So the idea that some technologies won’t catch on discourages some from using anything but email.

“The younger we are, the easier the changes are and the more receptive we are to change,” Landa says. “We have seen a lot of flash-in-the-pan technology, snake oil, new ideas that go crazy for [a while]. They get to the top in the hype cycle, they drop to the bottom of the pit in the depression, and then they never move.

“With the older physicians, I think there is a reluctance to try something just because it’s new, whereas with the younger docs, there is every week a new technology that I want to try because I am willing to go through 20 of them before I find one that works. They have more energy and are more open to it.”

Security Is Job One

The safety of email is a major reason that many continually question its fate. In a broad sense, that is the natural question when a technology is new, says Ben Compaine, director of the fellows program at the Columbia University Institute for Tele-Information and a lecturer in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University in Boston.

“There are always people who will find something to fear,” Compaine says. “Like when ATMs came along, there was stuff being written about safety concerns: ‘People will go to an ATM, and someone just holds them up and gets their money.’ It’s happened, but given the hundreds of millions of transactions that go on, you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Dr. Arora cautions that the difference for hospitalists is that when a safety mistake is made with email, it can constitute a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). And while those mistakes can happen innocently enough on social media or via text messaging, she says email issues are the most common.

“I’ve seen HIPAA violations where a patient would send an email to a doctor and the doctor would reply all to all of the [hospitalists] in their group saying, ‘Can anyone help me answer this question?’” she says. “So the forward email and forward and reply all are the most dangerous features because you have to know what you are forwarding and would that person want it shared with everybody.”

Landa believes that part of the problem with the efficacy of email is that it’s become so fast and so easy that people don’t take their time thinking about the impact of each email. Dr. Arora agrees and suggests hospitalists think carefully about what is in an email, particularly when it involves patient information.

“Share the minimum necessary information with a minimum number of people to try to accomplish what you are trying to do,” she adds. “That way, you are not clogging the inbox of everybody involved.”

Another potential pitfall to the efficacy of email is the “lost in translation” phenomenon, Landa says.

“How many times have you written am email and someone misinterpreted sarcasm or a joke or a particular word or a phrase and got upset because of what they thought you were saying?” he says. “I think that when you talk about the synchronous and rapid-fire style of the forms of communication, I think you elevate the risk by an order of magnitude. That’s the reason we have developed all the emoticons and all the visual references that are out there—to make sure that people don’t misinterpret what we’re saying.”

What’s Old Is New

So if hospitalists and communications experts believe email retains a place in the way information is conveyed, why is the question of its impending death a continuing parlor game for some?

“Because there’s always something new,” Moore says. “Because Messenger on Facebook looks a little bit flashier than email. Because now we have Periscope. Now we have Twitter. Now we have different types of platforms that message within each other. They all look flashier.”

But, in essence, each is simply a somewhat more modernized version, more bells and whistles, Moore says. He likes to compare it to the U.S. Postal Service. As technology progressed and communication became more real-time in ways well beyond telephone conversations, many pundits forecasted the end of what is derisively called snail mail, itself an admission of the speed and efficacy of electronic mail.

“You could make the analogy between the death of email and the death of the U.S. mail,” Moore says. “Ten years ago, people were writing this article about the death of the U.S. mail. And it certainly changed. Yes, there are less letters and less traffic and less parcels that the post office sends. But it’s still there. It’s not going away; it’s just adapting in a certain way.

“If you want to pinpoint a time that there is ‘the death of email,’ I think the death of the U.S. mail comes before it.” TH

Richard Quinn is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

A Who’s Who of Communication Tools

Alternatives to email have proliferated in recent years, yet technology research firm Radicati Group reported last year that there are 2.6 billion email users worldwide. Said another way, one in every three humans uses email. Some use other services, such as:

Facebook Messenger: A free instant-messaging service available on both desktops and mobile devices. It offers real-time connectivity; the service had 700 million users as of June 2015, according to Statista.

Twitter: The social-networking site offers private messaging. People must be connected to each other to use the service. The company reports 320 million active monthly users.

Skype: Web application that allows video and voice calls. Designed as a so-called “freemium” model, meaning basic services are free but premium services can cost monthly. Statista reports it has 300 million active monthly users.

Google Talk: At 10 years old, the grandfather of instant-messaging services. Allows for both real-time texting and video calls. Part of Google+, which Statista says has 300 million active monthly users.

Vine: A video-sharing service where users can transmit six-second clips. Owned by Twitter, it reported 100 million monthly views in May 2015.

Periscope: Live-video streaming service available as a mobile application. Launched in March 2015. Also owned by Twitter, it reported 10 million accounts as of August 2015.

Richard Quinn

Email should not replace face-to-face conversation, other workplace interactions

Image Credit: Shuttershock.com

Image Credit: Shuttershock.com

Hospitalist Aaron Jacobs, MD, associate chief medical information officer at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, deals with the intersection of HM and technology for a living, particularly email. But perhaps email’s greatest use to him? A reminder that for all it is, it isn’t a face-to-face conversation.

“I more and more am reminding myself: Pick up the phone. Walk down to their office. Go to the coffee cart and see who shows up there so you can actually have a conversation,” he says. “I really enjoy those interactions.

“[Email] is an absolutely vital form of communication, but it’s just one of many and has obvious limitations.”

In the years-long discussion over whether email is antiquated in the face of instant-messaging services and other mobile applications, Dr. Jacobs clearly sides with those who see a future for email. It’s just too ubiquitous in hospitalist workflow at this point.

But the debate is a clarion call that hospitalists should take some time to focus on the clearest interpersonal interactions they can. It’s a message echoed by hospitalist pioneer Robert Wachter, MD, MHM, who used his annual closing lecture at HM15 in National Harbor, Md., last year to note that the advent of communicative technology has reduced the role of face-to-face meetings among hospital staff from different specialties.

For his part, Dr. Jacobs tries to focus as much as possible on making sure that email is just one piece of his communications spectrum.

“We rely too much on technology,” he says. “We’ve seen that with computerized physician order entries [CPOE]. For some reason, people put an order into a computer and they assume that it gets communicated effectively to everybody that needs to get that message.

“I think it’s the same with emailing or text messaging. You assume it gets there. People sometimes forget … a common-sense approach. Why don’t you follow up on that email? Why don’t you talk to the nurse, as well? Make sure that there is no misunderstanding. That’s where the errors are really going to hurt us … when we stop doing those other things to follow up on the messages.” TH

Richard Quinn is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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