QUESTION: Can our professional practice evaluation/peer review committee use e-mail to communicate with physicians about the review of clinical or behavioral concerns?
ANSWER: Yes. Physician leaders have told us that they prefer communicating via e-mail (both internally and with the physician under review) because it’s quick and less formal than regular mail. The lack of formality can help to reduce anxiety on the part of the recipient and convey the message that the PPE/peer review process is meant to be educational, not punitive. In contrast, using certified mail sends the message that the Hospital is anticipating a confrontation and that lawyers will soon be involved.
Using e-mail to discuss PPE/peer review matters would not, on its own, waive the peer review privilege under state law. However, there are several best practices that should be adopted:
- All e-mails should include a standard convention, such as “Confidential PPE/Peer Review Communication” in the subject line.
- E-mail should not be sent to non-Hospital accounts unless the e-mail merely directs recipients to check their Hospital e-mail.
- If the e-mail contains any Protected Health Information (as that term is defined by the HIPAA Privacy Rule), the e-mail must comply with the Hospital’s HIPAA policies. Often, this will require that the e-mail be encrypted.
- If an e-mail includes a deadline for a response (for example, a request for input or to attend a meeting), the Hospital may want to send a text message or call the physician to say that the e-mail is being sent. The goal is to ensure the physician is aware of the e-mail so the deadline is not missed. However, the Hospital’s policy should also make clear that failure to send a text message or make a phone call is not an excuse for the physician to miss a deadline.
Of course, there are times when it’s more appropriate to use a formal letter. If a physician has not responded to prior collegial efforts, a letter may help to convey the seriousness of the matter. Also, the applicable Medical Staff policy should always be checked to ensure it does not require correspondence to be sent via certified mail or some other form of “Special Notice.” This is typically the case where a matter has progressed to a formal Investigation or a Medical Staff hearing is under way.