Healthcare News & Insights

Family practice docs spending more time per patient: Pros and cons

New research shows family practice doctors have been seeing adult patients more often, and spending more time per patient visit. So what’s the outcome of all those extra hours?

Pros: Better patient care overall. Cons: Docs working longer hours to make the same income.

That’s the result of recent research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The research team collected retrospective data on more than 46,000 visits to primary care doctors by adult patients, between 1997 and 2005. The study showed that the number of visits increased 10% over that period and the average length of a visit increased 16%, from 18 minutes per patient to almost 21 minutes.

Some types of visits increased in duration more than others:

  • regular check-ups increased by 3.4 minutes
  • high blood pressure checks increased 3.7 minutes
  • diabetes diagnoses increased 4.2 minutes, and
  • joint disease diagnoses increased 5.9 minutes.

Part of the reason for longer visits is that patients are learning to be more involved in the health care decision-making process, so they come to appointments armed with questions about tests, medications they’ve seen advertised and that tip Aunt Hilda passed on about how eating raw garlic can ward off arthritis.

While few would argue against patients being more engaged in their own care, dealing with those questions does take up valuable clinical time — and like it or not, doctors don’t get paid for their bedside manner. The end result is longer hours for doctors, while total compensation stays the same — if they’re lucky.

What can help

Some practices are instituting smart strategies to free up doctors’ time while still giving patients the time and attention they need and want.

Those strategies include having other staff on hand (physician’s assistant, nurse practitioners, etc.) to handle routine care, as well as group visits, where patients with similar conditions can meet with clinicians to discuss outpatient care and self-management.

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