Patients prefer the doctor without the computer, MD Anderson researchers find

Take the computer out of the exam room and patients perceive the doctor as more compassionate and professional, with better communication skills.

That’s the finding of a study by researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, published in JAMA Oncology.

The researchers conducted the randomized clinical trial to assess patients’ perception of doctors who use a computer in the examination room.

Patients watched two standardized, scripted video vignettes of physicians: one with a computer and the other portraying a face-to-face clinic visit, where the doctor used a notepad to record notes. In the first, the doctor used a stationary computer to access information and type notes while minimizing any disruption in eye contact with the patient. Both videos used an identical script.

In the study, 120 patients watched both videos and were then asked to complete questionnaires rating physician’s compassion, communication skills and professionalism, as well as to rate their overall physician preference.

Most patients (71%) preferred the physician without the computer and gave that doctor higher ratings on all three measures.

Why? Researchers said one possible explanation is that patients may value undivided attention and might perceive physicians who use a computer in the exam room as more distracted.

So, what can doctors who must use electronic health records do? Proper use of the computer and clinicians’ training might improve patients’ perceptions, they said. Since most doctors need to use EHRs and can’t just ditch the computer, future studies that focus on strategies to mitigate the negative effects of the computer on physician-patient communication are imperative, the researchers said.

Previous pilot programs have also found coaches who work with doctors to improve their scores on patient experience surveys tell physicians to create a work environment that’s patient-friendly. That includes making sure exam rooms are set up to encourage conversation and don't allow the computer to become a distraction. Doctors are asked to orient their body toward the patient, make eye contact and reduce distractions during the patient encounter. Allowing the patient to see the computer screen and the doctor explaining what he or she is doing can also help.