New study published in the Annals of Family Medicine (AFM) indicates that despite efforts to improve EHR usability and efficiency, primary care physicians continue to spend more than 50% of their workdays on computerized physician order entry (CPOE) and other clerical tasks instead of engaging in direct patient care

Do electronic health record (EHR) systems improve or degrade the productivity of physicians? That question has been the subject of robust debate. Now comes a new study in a peer-reviewed journal with a surprising finding: physicians spend up to 50% or more of their workday on EHR-related tasks.

In theory, EHRs offer a wealth of benefits over traditional paper-based systems. In practice, however, between interoperability concerns and implementation costs, they have proven a daunting undertaking for even the largest healthcare systems.

While EHRs might offer easy access to patient data—including medical laboratory records and anatomic pathology reports—this information doesn’t enter itself into databases or make itself instantly accessible. That requires human interaction, which is time consuming and prone to errors.

Thus, research from the American Medical Association (AMA) and the University of Wisconsin revealing that the time it takes to enter data, address communications, and perform other clerical tasks adds up to more than 50% of a physician’s workday is of paramount importance. That’s because physician dissatisfaction and departures from medical practice have increased each year since the EHR revolution began, and reports are the situation is getting worse.

In their retrospective cohort study involving 142 family medicine physicians, published in the Annals of Family Medicine (AFM), Brian G. Arndt, MD, from the School of Medicine and Public Health, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, University of Wisconsin, et al, reported that clinicians spend 52% of their 11.4-hour workday interacting with an EHR system. On average, nearly 1.5 hours of this EHR interaction occurred outside clinic hours during physicians’ personal time. The researchers assessed interactions using event logs from the Epic EHR system spanning from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2016.

Researchers validated their data through direct observation of 14 nonresident family medicine physicians from May through June of 2016. This observation showed similar findings. During clinical hours, 60% of physician time related to non-EHR tasks, with 40% of time devoted to EHR tasks.

Documentation Burden Leads to Physician Burnout, Dissatisfaction

“Our family medicine physicians spent 44% of their workday (157 minutes) in the EHR doing clerical and other administrative tasks,” study authors reported. “Computerized physician order entry accounted for 12.1% of their clinic hours (43 minutes) in the EHR. The burden related to order entry has been associated with clinician burnout, dissatisfaction, and intent to leave practice.”

Researchers tracked various tasks and assigned them to categories. Of the tasks tracked, only 32.1% fell under the heading of “medical care.” Reviewing chart notes, chart medications, and problem lists topped medical care tasks.

Review of clinical laboratory results in charts ranked near the bottom, with only 2.5% of the total time spent performing medical care tasks. These tasks, however, could offer opportunities for medical laboratories to help physicians identify opportunities to optimize reporting and test-ordering processes and improve productivity for clinicians who are responsible for most of the data entry burden associated with EHRs.

One potential solution to EHR burnout involves the use of medical scribes who work with physicians during and after a patient’s visit inputting encounter data. Alan Bank, MD, cardiologist at Allina Health, and medical scribe Jaeda Roth, are shown above during a patient visit. Bank told the StarTribune  that he’s convinced scribes help doctors get more done and reduce billing errors. (Photo and caption copyright: Elizabeth Flores/StarTribune.)

Researchers also questioned the EHR’s role as a communication or telemedicine hub. “There is insufficient evidence that such asynchronous care improves health outcomes, cost, and overall healthcare use,” they noted.

However, even for intra-practice communications between healthcare professionals, EHRs may not be the most efficient approach. “Face-to-face communication is associated with increased efficiency,” the researchers noted. “Whereas more electronic communication among team members leads to greater clinician and staff dissatisfaction, as well as poorer clinical outcomes and increased healthcare use among patients with coronary artery disease.”

EHR Cost/Benefits Generate Debate

This latest study is not the first to suggest that EHRs are creating problems for clinicians. While there appear to be no trends between studies, multiple researchers have highlighted the workload created by EHR systems in recent years.

In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (AIM), Christine A. Sinsky, MD, of the American Medical Association, et al, analyzed data from the observation of 57 US-based physicians in family medicine, internal medicine, cardiology, and orthopedics.

Comparing data across 430 hours of observation, researchers concluded, “For every hour physicians provide direct clinical face time to patients, nearly two additional hours are spent on EHR and desk work within the clinic day. Outside office hours, physicians spend another one to two hours of personal time each night doing additional computer and other clerical work.”

However, in a 2015 study published in the Annals of Family Medicine (AFM), Valerie Gilchrist, MD, Chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Family Health at the School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin, et al, found lower numbers. Observing 27 community-based family physicians across a single practice day, the researchers found that 39% of the practice day on average was devoted to office-based time. Of that time, 61% was spent on medical care related tasks.

Building a Better EHR

While medical laboratories and diagnostic specialists—such as anatomic pathologists—can work with physicians to streamline ordering and reporting processes relating to EHRs, much of the burden comes from how EHR systems are designed and used.

In a 2016 New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst Panel on EHRsTait Shanafelt, MD, Director of the Mayo Clinic Department Program on Physician Wellness, noted that one of the most contested features of EHR systems in the US, according to the AMA and Mayo Clinic, is computerized physician order entry (CPOE).

Later in the discussion, Sinsky discussed a recent trip to the UK, where she observed general practitioners (GPs) at the National Health Service (NHS). She noted that most GPs loved their EHRs. However, those EHRs were designed with GP input to best work with an NHS GP’s typical workflows and procedures. She also noted that overall usage is different in the UK, as EHRs there are not tied into billing systems.

As Dark Daily has reported, up to 70% of data stored in a patient’s electronic health record is clinical pathology laboratory related. As newer EHRs replace outdated models, it will remain critical for healthcare professionals—including clinical laboratory professionals who generate most of the data stored in EHRs—to assess, track, and report on what is working with various platforms and what is not.

Communicating this end-user data to EHR developers is essential to designing EHRs that reduce unneeded burden and clerical load on physicians, rather than increasing it.

Clinical laboratories tat wish to take proactive steps might contact physicians and other professionals in their workgroups to tailor data generation, reporting, and ordering processes to the EHRs in use at those practices.

—Jon Stone

Related Information:

Primary Care Doctors Spend More Than 50% of Workday on EHR Tasks, American Medical Association Study Finds

Tethered to the EHR: Primary Care Physician Workload Assessment Using EHR Event Log Data and Time-motion Observations

Study: EHRs Bloat Clerical Workload for Docs

Harried Doctors Hail the Rise of the Medical Scribe

Type and Click Tasks Drain Half the Primary Care Workday

Allocation of Physician Time in Ambulatory Practice: A Time and Motion Study in 4 Specialties

Doctors Wasting Over Two-Thirds of Their Time Doing Paperwork

Physician Activities During Time Out of the Examination Room

Heavy Burden of EHRs Could Contribute to Physician Burnout