Most people know it only takes a few seconds to make an impression, and most first impressions are difficult to change. What most people may not realize is that this rule doesn't just apply to person-to-person meetings.
"We are in the age of computers, and e-mail is a huge way of communication, so that could be the first way of meeting a patient," says Hendersonville, N.C.-based Darlene Das, president of etiquette consulting company Today's Etiquette, and a trained surgical technician who specializes in medical practice etiquette.
When it comes to communicating with patients, and even with fellow staff, making a good impression is just the first of many reasons your written — or typed — words are so important. Come across as too cutesy, grammatically inept, impolite, or inappropriate, and your e-mails could offend colleagues or turn off patients from your practice.
Whether communicating with colleagues or patients face-to-face or via e-mail, the same age-old etiquette rules apply. You need to be polite, professional, and friendly. But because of electronic communication's unique qualities, there are additional considerations, from using proper grammar to observing formalities.
Here, we go over some basic rules of e-mail etiquette to share with your staff for office-based and patient communications.
Challenges and considerations
When you meet someone in person, you make judgments not only based on what the individual is wearing, but on how he comes across — including his facial expression. Conveying a positive, professional message, therefore, can be tough over an electronic medium.
"E-mail can also be perceived as very impersonal," says Karen Hickman, an etiquette consultant with Fort Wayne, Ind.-based etiquette consulting firm Professional Courtesy, LLC, who works with medical practices. "Especially in healthcare when you're dealing with patients, there might be some issues that you wouldn't want to discuss via e-mail that would be better to discuss on the telephone, or in person."
Also, sometimes using e-mail in lieu of a phone call can be perceived as unprofessional. For example, your staff may not be well-versed in grammar or they may not know how to convey things in writing with the appropriate tone.
"For some people, [e-mail] can seem very abrupt," says Hickman.
The biggest challenge to e-mail, though, is that it's not private. Staff may forget this when sending inappropriate jokes to each other. Or, if your staff is sending messages to patients without using a secure patient portal, it could put your practice at risk for a security breach, and penalties under the HIPAA Security Rule. [For more on e-mail privacy considerations, see http://bit.ly/MD-Email-privacy].
Rules for interoffice e-mail
Whether you're e-mailing your colleagues or patients, certain etiquette rules always apply. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are important (be sure to avoid abbreviations such as "lol" for "laugh out loud"), and e-mails should be as brief as possible, with specific subject lines.
But don't sacrifice brevity for warmth.
"Start with a warm greeting like 'good morning' or 'good afternoon,'" says Hickman. "And then close your e-mail with a warmer feel, like 'kind regards,' or 'best regards' at the end."
With interoffice e-mails, the tone can be less formal — you can refer to someone as "Nancy" instead of "Mrs. Brown" or "Dr. Brown" — but you still have to watch what you write.