A study released by an online health network yesterday revealed that the number of physicians communicating directly with their patients through email has tripled in the last year, and those who have a Web site have doubled.
"Physicians are rapidly harnessing the Internet as a business and communication tool," said Dr. Edward Fotsch, CEO of Medem, which conducted and funded the study.
It found that 70 percent of physicians have Internet access from their offices and are going online for the same reasons as the general population: email, financial data, personal use and services. Studies conducted last year by the American Medical Association (AMA), one of the founders of Medem, showed that only 37 percent of physicians were using the Web.
The Medem study found that the number of physicians using email to communicate with their patients on a daily basis jumped from 3 percent to 10 percent in the last year.
In addition, the number of physicians creating Web sites for their practices has increased more than 50 percent in the last nine months, showing that physicians are using the Internet as a means to convey information to their patients.
"Web sites are not just for the young, hip computer doctors," said Fotsch. "It's pretty much the same, whether they were in practice for 5 years or 30 years."
The study said that 36 percent of physicians who do not have Web sites for their practices plan to get online in the next year.
"If a critical mass of physicians create sites for themselves, that really might affect the way consumers begin to view physician sites," said Claudine Singer, senior health analyst for Jupiter Communications.
However, Fotsch said that if a physician has a Web site, the likelihood that the physician tells the patient about the site is less than 50 percent.
Physicians who participated in the survey said they have been confronted with challenges in finding, updating and maintaining quality content for their sites.
"It's easier to build and throw up a Web site, but it's hard to create the vast quantities of information that patients are going to be interested in," Fotsch said, adding that doctors are too busy taking care of patients.
Three-fifths of physicians surveyed cited lack of time as the biggest obstacle to Internet use, the study said.
Jupiter's Singer said consumers are primarily going to commercial health sites--such as Healtheon/WebMD, OnHealth Network and Drkoop.com--to educate themselves. According to a survey conducted by Jupiter last year, 36 percent of consumers are going to commercial sites, while only 9 percent are going to physician sites.
Singer said that the reason a small percentage of consumers are going to physician sites is because most physicians do not have Web sites and because people frequently are changing doctors.
"Physician Web sites are going to take off fairly robustly...and if the idea for an electronic storefront (for physicians) became more prevalent, consumers would begin to access in droves," Singer said.
To address that shortage, Healtheon/WebMD, Medscape and others are trying to build physician sites. Medem yesterday launched its own service, Your Practice Online, to provide physicians with customizable Web sites to communicate with patients online and off.
The AMA along with several medical societies founded San Francisco-based Medem last October. Founders included the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
The study was based on approximately 1,300 physicians who responded to a survey, which was sent to members of five of Medem's founding societies.