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It’s easier than ever to share ideas with your colleagues. Best of all, you can do it on your own time from the comfort of your home or office.

Fam Pract Manag. 2001;8(8):54-55

Are you considering purchasing an electronic medical records system but want information before you buy? Are you interested in learning more about other colleagues’ best practices? Are you feeling a little burned out and wondering how others cope? If you subscribe to e-mail discussion lists, you can get answers to these questions and more from colleagues who’ve “been there, done that.” All you need is a computer, any type of e-mail software and access to the Internet.

Discussion lists defined

An e-mail discussion list (sometimes referred to as a “userlist” or “listserv”) is simply a list of e-mail addresses represented by a single e-mail address for the purpose of discussing a certain topic. When a person on the list sends an e-mail to the list address, all members of the list receive the e-mail and can reply if they choose to do so. Access to discussion lists is often limited to subscribers, but it’s easy to sign up. Many lists are free; however, lists owned or moderated by an organization or association may limit participation to members only.

There are numerous medical and health-related lists on the Internet, some dedicated to patients and others geared toward practicing physicians. The AAFP, for example, has member discussion lists on topics ranging from rural health to personal digital assistants and wireless technology (for a list of what is available and information on how to subscribe, see the box).


Here’s a sampling of some of the popular e-mail discussion lists currently available:

Fam-Med focuses on the use of information technology in family medicine. To subscribe, send an e-mail message to Leave the subject line blank and type “subscribe fam-med [include your full name without brackets]” in the message box. Subscription is free.

Family-L is a discussion group for family medicine faculty and fellows. To subscribe, send an e-mail message to Leave the subject line blank and type “subscribe family-1 [include your full name without brackets]” in the message box or “subscribe family-1 digest [include your full name without brackets]” to receive e-mail in digest form. Subscription is free.

The IDCOP (Idealized Design of Clinical Office Practices) discussion group is hosted by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and is for physicians interested in sharing their thoughts, ideas and experiences about practice redesign. To subscribe, send an e-mail message to and type “subscribe” (without quotation marks) in the message box. Subscription is free.

AAFP e-mail discussion lists

The following discussion lists are available to AAFP members. Unless otherwise noted, Academy members can subscribe to all AAFP e-mail discussion lists by accessing the members-only side of the Academy Web site ( and then clicking on “E-mail Discussion Lists” in the lower left-hand corner of the screen.

  • Annual Clinical Focus

  • Clinical procedures

  • Electronic medical records

  • Emergency medicine

  • Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues

  • International interest group

  • International medical graduates

  • Minority issues

  • New physicians

  • PDAs and wireless technologies

  • Practice management

  • Quality improvement

  • Rural health

  • State government

  • Tobacco issues

  • Women physicians

Locating discussion lists

Most physicians who are familiar with e-mail discussion lists know about the more popular ones such as Fam-Med, but there are many more. For help locating other medically related discussion lists, try searching the Internet using CataList (, listTool ( or Topica ( These Web sites offer access to numerous medical and health-related discussion lists that are currently available.

Two important terms

Almost everything related to computers generates its own terminology. E-mail discussion lists are no different. For example, “posting” a message to the list address simply means sending your message to all members. Choosing the “digest” version of a discussion list means opting to receive all the day’s exchanges in a single e-mail instead of as they are posted. This is great for busy discussion lists that generate scores of daily messages and will prevent clutter from building up in your e-mail inbox.

Discussion list etiquette

The rules for participating in e-mail discussion lists are usually included in the welcome messages you receive after joining. Most of the rules, like the following, just require that you use good, old-fashioned common sense.

Choose your audience. Decide whether a response merits being sent to the entire list or only to the individual posting the message. For example, send a thankyou message only to the e-mail address of the author, rather than to everyone on the list.

Keep the subject-line text descriptive but simple. Delete unnecessary headings that are automatically generated in a chain of responses to e-mails. For example, substitute “malpractice” for “Re(3): Re(2): Re(1): about that malpractice insurance question.”

Prune your reply messages. Keep your message succinct and leave out irrelevant text from the original message. To do this, either delete the original text in your reply or change the preferences setting in your e-mail application so that it automatically does this.

Fellow list users will appreciate not having to scroll through reams of text in order to get to your comments.

Be courteous. Disagreements are one thing; personal insults are another.

Avoid “flaming.” “Flaming” is a term used to describe angry e-mails meant simply to heat up the emotions of others. If a posting to the discussion list upsets you, make a conscious effort to tone down the emotion in your reply or simply wait until you cool down before responding.

Reread your messages. Always spell check and review the text of your messages before sending them.

Now that you know a little more about e-mail discussion lists, consider subscribing to one. Pick a topic you love or one you want to learn more about. The electronic exchange is almost guaranteed to be informative and stimulating.

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Copyright © 2001 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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