March 1, 2011; Source: San Jose Mercury News | It just got a lot cheaper to talk to doctors at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) in California. On March 1, the nonprofit healthcare provider eliminated the $60 annual fee it had been charging people who enrolled in a program to email questions, make appointments online, and view records. The foundation said it was taking the step in response to requests from patients.

“We have listened,” the foundation said in an email earlier this week, “With e-messaging, you can send a secure electronic message to your doctor and other members of your health care team at anytime and from anywhere you have computer access.” Currently there are some 250,000 patients enrolled in My Health Online. Emails sent to doctors are mostly meant for questions that don't require immediate answers, since the PAMF says it can take up to two business days for a response.

For patients, the convenience and no-cost for the service, makes the service hard to resist. “I like not having to stay on hold on the telephone waiting to make an appointment,” said Linda Bergthold, a Santa Cruz health policy consultant. Other benefits include: e-mailing her doctor to make sure minor symptoms aren't precursors of something major, the ability to get test results as soon as they're complete, and online prescription renewals. “All these things I can do from my computer at home, in my own time when it’s convenient for me — and now at no cost,” she said.—Bruce Trachtenberg