Simply providing a surgeon’s e-mail address nearly triples the likelihood that a patient will contact the doctor about the surgery, a new report shows.

Doctors have long debated whether e-mail communication with patients is a good idea. Many physicians believe good medicine can only be practiced in person and are wary of initiating online communication with patients. Legal experts fear e-mail trails with patients could be used in malpractice litigation. But many doctors believe e-mail can be a useful tool for busy surgeons to answer easy questions from patients. E-mail may also increase the odds of detecting postsurgical problems by making it easier for patients to communicate, some doctors say.

A report today in The Archives of Surgery tested whether offering e-mail addresses to patients had any effect on their willingness to communicate with doctors or their satisfaction following surgery. Dr. Peter Stalberg of the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, Australia, and his colleagues studied 100 patients scheduled to undergo thyroid or parathyroid surgery.

Half of the patients received an information sheet that included the surgeon’s e-mail address and a statement informing them that the surgeon’s preferred method of communication was e-mail. The remaining patients received an information sheet that did not include an e-mail address or any comment about the surgeon’s preferred mode of contact. The surgeon’s e-mail address was available to both groups on the appointment card and a Web site.

About one in four patients initiated additional contact with the doctor outside of regular appointments. Outside contact was most common in the group given e-mail instructions: 38 percent, compared with only 14 percent in the other group. Most used e-mail to contact their doctors, including 18 in the e-mail group but only four in the group not given specific instructions. Another three patients used the fax machine, and one patient used the telephone.

Most of the patients using e-mail were just seeking general information. Others were asking about postoperative recovery and results, while four patients were seeking reassurance. The study showed no difference in patient satisfaction between the two groups.

“People who use e-mail certainly would like to have e-mail access to their physicians,” the authors wrote. “Despite the many concerns, we believe that this study shows that the provision to patients of readily available e-mail access to their surgeon provides a very effective means of improving communication prior to patients undergoing elective surgery.”