Doctors May Spend Nearly Half Their Time on 'Paperwork,' Study Says

PHOTO: A doctor fills out paperwork on a computer and in files, in this undated photo.Getty Images
A doctor fills out paperwork on a computer and in files, in this undated photo.

A new small study published today found that doctors may spend nearly half their time documenting and performing administrative tasks rather than having face-to-face time with patients.

Interactions with physicians have dramatically changed since the introduction of electronic health records (EHRs), with the switch from paper intended to increase physician interactions with patients.

But the study, published in the Annals of Medicine yesterday, found that doctors are still being inundated with electronic “paperwork” and desk work. In the study, 57 physicians in various sub-specialties were observed by researchers during office hours. Some also maintained a self-reported diary for after work hours from July 2015 to August 2015.

After a total of 430 observed hours for the group, researchers from the American Medical Association found that 29 percent of total work time was spent talking with patients or other staff members and another 49 percent was spent on electronic record keeping and desk work.

Dr. Tom Payne, medical director for IT services at University of Washington Medicine, who has studied the issue but was not a part of this particular project, said the survey will be key in understanding how doctors spend their time and how to find solutions so that both doctors and patients are happier.

"I applaud the authors for examining this in a rigorous way," said Payne. He pointed out that anecdotally he had heard doctors were upset about the amount of time they were spending on paperwork.

Payne said the electronic records require doctors to fill in notes so that patients can be billed properly, but that the process can be time-consuming. "It detracts from the time we have to listen to the patient and have a meaningful visit and answer questions asked," Payne said.

Researchers found that when physicians were in the exam room with patients they spent approximately 53 percent of their time interacting with the patients and 37 percent on electronic health records or other desk work.

Payne said doctors should be able to use other means to fill out health records online from dictation to voice recognition software. "I think we need to make things better because patients notice that doctors are spending more time with the computer than in some cases they are spending listening to" patients, said Payne.

Dr. Cliff Megerian, an ENT and President of University Hospitals Physician Services at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, said the study can help show how a doctor's time is not being used effectively.

"This article comes at an appropriate time to alert the medical community...and helps raise the concern that we are not utilizing medical doctors appropriately," he told ABC News.

But Megerian warns that the study, funded primarily by the American Medical Association, is small and more research needs to be done to verify these findings.

“It’s a small sample size and only a few institutions," he said. "There will need to be more and more of these studies done to help quantify the significance of this issue."

Comparatively, there are no such elaborate studies when physicians used paper charts so it is difficult to evaluate if allocated time has changed.

Last year the American Medical Informatics Association EHR-2020 Task Force, which is led by Payne, evaluated the functionality of the records and concluded benefits of the EHR include consolidated information and theoretically sharing information more easily between institutions but acknowledged the technology can lead to new risks and unintended consequences.

Recommendations included simplifying documents, refocusing regulations to simplify certain procedures, and increasing transparency.

ABC News' Gillian Mohney contributed to this report.