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Primary Care Physicians’ Experiences With and Strategies for Managing Electronic Messages

The increasing use of electronic communications has enhanced access to physicians for patients and clinical staff. Primary care physicians (PCPs) have anecdotally identified electronic inbox management as a new source of work-related stress. To describe PCPs’ experiences managing their electronic inboxes and to characterize the array of management strategies developed by individual physicians and practice groups. This qualitative study was conducted in 8 medical centers of a large group practice with more than 4 million patients in diverse settings and a mature electronic health record. The group encourages patients to use portal secure messaging to enhance access to their physicians and the care experience. Semistructured interviews were conducted with 24 internists and family medicine physicians identified via snowball sampling. Interviews were conducted July through November 2018. Data analysis was conducted between November 2018 and April 2019. Audio recorded interviews were transcribed and analyzed using thematic analysis to identify major themes and subthemes. The 24 participants (12 women [50.0%]; mean [SD] age, 45.5 [6.5] years), including 9 department chiefs and 15 PCPs, had a mean (SD) of 16.8 (7.8) years since medical school graduation. Participants described substantial changes in medical practice due to electronic communication, including perceived patient expectations to receive rapid responses to portal secure messages. They described portal secure messaging as useful for building relationships with patients, but also reported that electronic message management has created new stressors, including erosion of work-life boundaries and anxiety associated with unlimited inbox volume. Individual PCPs used a diverse array of strategies, including multitasking during and outside work and delegating to medical assistants. Chiefs described group-level strategies, including reserving clinic time for inbox management, coverage systems for vacation and sick days, physician-to-physician training, and interdisciplinary teams to share messaging work. Individual physicians and local practice groups have developed a wide array of strategies for electronic inbox management. The volume of electronic messages and PCPs’ perceptions that patients expect rapid responses have created new stressors in primary care practice. Medical groups and health systems can support PCPs by facilitating knowledge transfer among physicians about inbox management strategies and further developing team structures for inbox coverage.

Authors: Lieu TA; Altschuler A; Weiner JZ; East JA; Moeller MF; Prausnitz S; Reed ME; Warton EM; Goler N; Awsare S

JAMA Netw Open. 2019 12 02;2(12):e1918287. Epub 2019-12-02.

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