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Emailing Your Doctor May Carry a Fee

Kacie Lewis, 29, is among those who manage their health concerns electronically. Until recently, her Aetna insurance coverage had a high deductible, through her work as a product manager at a health care company. And since late 2021, she said, she had been billed $32 for each of three email threads, seeking treatments for psoriasis, eczema and a yeast infection from providers at Novant Health in Charlotte, N.C.

“Time is money,” Ms. Lewis said. “And to be able to submit something super simple and communicate with your doctor over email is much better than driving 20 minutes one way, 20 minutes back the other way and potentially sitting in the waiting room.”

In a paper published on Jan. 6 in JAMA, Dr. Holmgren and his colleagues reported that after U.C.S.F. Health started its email billing in November 2021, there was a slight drop in the number of patient emails to providers. The researchers suggested that might have been the result of patients’ reluctance to be charged a fee.

In the first year, U.C.S.F. billed for 13,000 message threads, or about 1.5 percent of 900,000 threads and more than three million messages, according to the study. (Other hospitals told The Times they billed for no greater than 2 percent of threads.) From about $20 from Medicare and Medicaid and $75 from commercial insurers per bill, the email fees generated $470,000, compared with the system’s $5.6 billion in 2021 revenues.

“This will hopefully be revenue-neutral,” Dr. Holmgren said. “We are not intending to make this a profitable enterprise.”

Critics argue that billing for a small fraction of emails is not likely to reduce physician burnout substantially unless hospitals also set aside workday hours for patient queries and reward clinicians for those efforts. U.C.S.F. has begun giving “productivity points,” a metric used for compensation, for doctors’ correspondence.

Jack Resneck Jr., president of the American Medical Association, said he supported insurance coverage for emailing as a way to adjust health care models to fast-changing times.

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