Using email or secure messaging to communicate with providers is a less common practice than communicating with friends and peers, although many individuals express interest in electronically contacting their providers. One survey found that over 80% of adults said they would favor or strongly favor being able to email their physicians; yet the same survey found that only 8% currently do so. Other studies have developed a range of estimates of the proportion of patients who are emailing their health care providers from 6% to 37%.[†] The percentage of people communicating with providers online has experienced a slow, but statistically significant increase over time.
One of the key factors behind the disparity between the number of patients who would like to email their providers and the number who actually do so is whether individuals are seeing providers who offer this service. Although one study found that roughly one-quarter of doctors are communicating with patients online, other estimates are lower. The number of consumers who said they had access to online communications with their physicians increased from 12 million in 2004 to 15 million in 2005, but these numbers still account for a small share of the 100 million US patients who would like to communicate electronically with their providers. Despite the fact that online communications between physicians and providers is apparently growing at a slower rate than other forms of online use, many doctors predict that it will become increasingly common in coming years, particularly because of the large demand from patients.
Visiting insurer websites is also growing in popularity. By one estimate, 26 million individuals visited the website of their health plan in 2005—a dramatic increase from the estimated 4 million who did so in 2001. Yet using the web to learn more about providers is still not a widely embraced practice. In one study, 18% of people who seek health information were in search of information on physicians who specialize in treatments and 13% sought to learn about hospitals.
It is not clear how many consumers consult online provider quality data. Two surveys found that twice as many individuals report being likely to gather information about the quality of providers from friends, relatives, and other health care providers, compared to individuals who would look to publicly available sources, including the internet. These studies found that 19%-36% of respondents say they would likely use the internet as a source of quality information.