Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Time with the Doctor

Scientific American publish an article titled "Are Doctors getting slower or are patients getting sicker" that was based on a paper written and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine: Primary Care Visit Duration and Quality: Does Good Care Take Longer? Chen et al. Arch Intern Med.2009; 169: 1866-1872. (unfortunately subscription required). Apparently people are going to the doctor's office more often and for longer visits than 9 years ago. Whether this is because we need more medical attention or because there are more treatments available, the end result is the same as it is for imaging and radiology. Fewer resources spread over more work. In radiology the explosion of images (imagine the effect of single slice CT to 64 and more slices CT exams) has created less time to review per image for the number of radiologists available.

In medicine in general, if we the patient are consuming more time with more visits and for longer consultations - assuming the number of clinicians stays constant this should result in a decline in time per consultation. This represents a challenge in achieving the goals of modern healthcare
Two of the most pressing goals for the U.S. health care system are to deliver higher-quality care and to lower costs
Since most studies suggest that better care is linked to time spent with the clinicians - especially in complex cases. It turns out according to this study that
(they) found no evidence for the commonly held belief that physicians are spending less time with their patients or that quality of care has diminished
Time spent had increased from 18 minutes per consultation to 20.8 minutes. The investigators discount clinicians inefficiency as the reason for the increase:
Although it is possible that physicians are becoming less efficient over time, it is far more likely that visit duration has increased because it takes more resources or time to care for an older and sicker population
And while I think the complexity has increased in care delivery I think it is far more likely a combination of both (complexity of care and inefficiencies in the clinical care system) contributing to increase in time necessary to spend with the patient. Unfortunately much of this inefficiency is the new clinical systems and the complexity of capturing the information that has added significantly to the time required. No doubt we will see more studies that segment the time in more detail. In fact in some results published in this article in the Healthcare Ledger (Medical Transcription Relevance in the EHR Age - warning pdf) a study suggested that documentation time had quadrupled adding more than 110 minutes per day!

There is consensus on the value of clinical systems and digital information in particular the opportunity of providing more useful data at the time of the doctor-patient interaction. But it was clear from recent discussions that there is a divide in the way in which doctors and clinical staff should interact with these systems to capture and record information. There are those who view additional resources appropriate for assisting (Moving Transcription Back into the Hospital). And there are those that see a need for a change in approach and style to adapt to this process and incorporate into the doctor-patient interview. My own personal experiences support both answers. In some instances the interaction with the clinical system forces a change in the way doctors interact with patients and the process, work flow, methods and materials suit a new way of working. But in a recent experience at a clinician specialist's office (in this case a pulmonologist) it was very clear watching the interaction and in particular the flexibility and dynamic nature of the paper based note taking that any imposition of a digital system would not only slow the consultation to a grinding halt but would reduce the information captured dramatically. This is not to suggest that there is not (or will not be) a solution to this problem but the "standard" digital note capture system would be hopeless in this setting and be quickly rejected.

The comments to the article demonstrate some of the strong feelings - those of doctors overwhelmed with administrivia
Patients are NOT sicker and Doctors are slower, but only because of the inordinate amount of documentation required. My office note 40 years ago might have been: Sore throat-----Penicillin. We all knew what a sore throat was and that Penicillin was prescribed. In contrast Today's visit must include all vital signs, past history, a history of the presenting complaint, history of allergy, plus a rather extended physical exam, otherwise we do not get paid by the insurance companies or the Government. I used to see 50 or more patients a day and see them very well. Now, with all the rules I"m lucky to see 30 and am exhausted after doing so.
Dr. Michel Hirsch, FP, FAAFP (1967-present)
Donaldsonville, LA.
and the patients who feel they are getting less at a higher cost
I must live on another planet. Nurses have always performed all of the routine stuff like vital signs etc. I am 54 years old and have type 1 diabetes. I have never had a doctor spend more than 10 minutes with me, ever. It's usually 5 minutes and $70.
Both are right - doctors are required to do more in less time and patients are getting less. I like many others buy the vision of electronic medical records but perhaps not exactly as they exist today. The current large scale implementations and clinical systems struggle to account for the variations in specialties and their needs and while there is some element of best of breed approach many shy from this concept given the historical challenges of integration and intelligent sharing of information between systems from different providers. Things have improved - Healthstory (using HL7 CDA) as an example of an open standard that allows sharing of clinical data. This is a journey not a destination....and if there is a destination Ill bet that will be constantly changing! The challenge in the coming months and years will be guiding the beleaguered, over worked and underpaid clinicians through the maze of systems, their features and functions and helping them adapt their technology to their practice and vice versa.

How important is the digital record and if given the choice of doctors with and without what would you choose. For the practicing physicians that has an electronic medical record - is it a good or bad experience. For doctors still working in the paper world - can you see this changing or are your needs met currently and cannot be sustained in any of the digital models you've seen?