The Grieving Find Comfort in E-Mail

By Esther B. Fein N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, November 26, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Grieving Find Comfort in E-Mail


Esther B. Fein N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


NEW YORK -- Dr. Leonard Wexler, a pediatric oncologist, struggled to comfort Helen and David Eisman, who were aching from the loss of their 19-year-old son, Jonathan, to a rare form of cancer.

"We are trying to find some kind of peace," agonized Helen. "I think it will escape us for a long, long time."

"I hope," Wexler responded, "that there can be some solace for you, as there was for me, in knowing that you raised a wonderful, caring, funny, charming son, who touched the lives of everyone he met and made them better for having known him." The exchange took place neither in Wexler's cramped office at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center nor on the telephone. Wexler's gentle words sped from his computer terminal in upper Manhattan to that of the Eismans in Wayne, N.J., and in that flash of cyberconnection, a human heart was eased. The vast changes of modern medicine have profoundly eroded the traditional relationship between those who give and those who receive medical care. As managed care forces many people to abandon their longtime physicians, and technology makes medicine feel ever colder and less human, patients say they feel increasingly cut off from decisions about their own care. At the same time, doctors say falling reimbursement rates are forcing them to see so many patients that they cannot get to know the people they treat. But now, a rapidly growing number of doctors and patients say the home computer is helping them rebuild those bonds. E-mail, whose blend of efficiency and intimacy has made it such a standard medium of talk in this electronic age, is becoming a tool to bring back some of the comforting and hand holding that went out with the house call. There have been no formal surveys of doctors regarding their use of electronic mail, and no one has suggested that it will make more traditional forms of interaction obsolete. But several people who have studied doctor-patient relationships and others who have looked at the medical uses of technology agreed that the practice was proliferating. The doctors who most readily suggest that patients and families e- mail them tend to be younger doctors who are more comfortable with the technology, although many doctors who have been practicing a long time have seized on it as well. The computer would seem an unlikely solution to fill the doctor- patient void: so cold, so distant, so impersonal. And yet, doctors and patients say, the electronic conversation has drawn them closer. "It is an enormously powerful way to speak, to communicate with your patients," said Wexler, 35, who corresponds regularly by computer with his patients and their families. …

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