E-mail -- Is It a Good Thing?

February 21, 2008

Recently, I have encountered several circumstances where e-mails between doctors, as well as staff members, have resulted in misunderstandings and subsequent problems.

Recently, I have encountered several circumstances where e-mails between doctors, as well as staff members, have resulted in misunderstandings and subsequent problems. Case in point: A certain physician sent a meeting request via e-mail to two of his colleagues. He understood that the meeting would be between himself and the two other physicians. Unfortunately, the two others assumed that they would be meeting between themselves; they were quite surprised when the first physician showed up at their meeting! A simple phone call would have made the matter clear from the start.

I am sure you have had, or know of, a similar experience. For whatever reason, it’s becoming increasingly commonplace to communicate with colleagues using e-mail rather than using the telephone or -- gasp! -- initiate personal contact. I find it truly amazing that people think nothing of e-mailing a coworker whose desk is 20 feet away. I realize that in some cases, such as setting up meetings or confirming receipt of documents, e-mails may be necessary or logical. But what has happened to getting up from our desks and walking around the corner just to talk?

E-mailing can sometimes take on a more sinister note. One of the practices for which I was consulting experienced a situation where an employee responded to a coworker’s e-mail query with another question. The coworker interpreted the response completely out of context, took offense, and escalated the interaction into a huge brouhaha that required the intervention of senior management. The loss of productive work time was tremendous, not to mention the loss of good will between staff members. Again, a simple phone call or direct interaction could have avoided the whole fracas.

So, with that in mind, here are a few hints to smooth out your e-mail experience:

Procedural:

  • Keep messages brief and to the point.

  • Use cc: and bcc: appropriately and judiciously. Address your e-mail only to those who really need to receive your message. Do not copy your e-mail to your entire address book!

  • Use "Reply all" only when absolutely necessary. E-mails can quickly stuff a person’s inbox, many of which never should have been sent at all.

  • Use the subject field to indicate content and purpose, for later reference.

  • Never send jokes or personal information. Office e-mail is for office use only.

  • Be aware that when you respond to a “threaded” e-mail, you are continuing a long and cumbersome message. Is this necessary? Cut what you don’t need.

  • Be wary of using abbreviations such as BTW (by the way) or TTYL (talk to you later), since not everyone will know what you mean.

  • Also be careful with “insider” symbols such as -Q, which I understand means “smoker,” but who knows for sure?

Personal:

  • Take time to spell-check your e-mails before clicking “Send.” How does it make you look if your message is littered with misspelled words and poor use of punctuation?

  • Don’t use e-mail as a way to avoid personal contact.

  • Keep in mind that tone cannot be heard in an e-mail. The recipient may misunderstand you even if you use italics or underlining.

  • ALL CAPS IS CONSIDERED SCREAMING.

  • Remember, e-mails can be saved by others and used when they feel necessary. E-mails are legal documents and may potentially surface in a dispute.

E-mail can be a real time-saver and a great way to communicate. But if abused, it can also lead to misunderstandings and very often to a loss or change in work relationships, so think before you hit “Send.”

Owen Dahl, FACHE, CHBC, is a nationally recognized medical practice management consultant with over 24 years of experience in consulting for and managing medical practices, and he is author of Think Business! Medical Practice Quality, Efficiency, Profits. He can be reached at odahl@comcast.net or 281 367 3364.