Physicians spend half of their time face-to-face with patients, half on the computer, study finds

Doctor with computer and gadgets
Doctors are splitting time between patient visits and computers, study finds.

Doctors are splitting their time pretty evenly between face-to-face visits with patients and time on the computer, a new study found.

The study of 471 primary care physicians, published in Health Affairs, found physicians spent an average of 3.08 hours on office visits and 3.17 hours on what was called desktop medicine, such as typing progress notes in an electronic health record, each day. 

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Other desktop medicine activities included communicating with patients via a secure patient portal, logging telephone encounters, exchanging secure messages with patients and refilling prescriptions. Doctors also spent time on the computer ordering tests, sending staff messages and reviewing test results.

The study used data captured by the access time stamp function on the EHR in over 31 million transactions from 2011 to 2014. The doctors collectively worked on 765,129 patients’ records. Over time, doctors spent less time in face-to-face visits and more time on the computer, the study found.

Given the shift in how doctors spend their time, staffing and scheduling in the physician’s office, as well as provider payment models for primary care practice, should account for these desktop medicine activities, the study authors said.

In fact, new hybrid payment models launched by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, such as the Comprehensive Primary Care Plus model, allow practices to have flexibility to deliver care, which is not tied exclusively to the office visit, the authors said. “This is an explicit move away from payment for visits only, and an acknowledgment that critical aspects of patient care that happen outside the visit require appropriate compensation,” they wrote.

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The latest study falls in line with previous research that indicates doctors are spending more time on computers. A study released earlier this year found doctors at a Swiss hospital spend up to three times as much time with computers as they do with patients. A study released last fall found that for every hour physicians spend in exam room visits with patients, they spend nearly two hours on EHR and desk work during office hours.