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Patients, Doctors Spending More Time Together During Visits


Researchers report that primary care doctors spent more time with their adult patients during office visits in 2005 than they did about ten years earlier. This finding may surprise many health care consumers, who may be asking whether this increase in patient visiting time still is true today.

The study, which was conducted by investigators from the University of Michigan Health System, looked at the relationship between efficiency in primary care, the time physicians spend with their patients, and quality of care received. The research team gathered data on more than 46,000 visits to primary care doctors between 1997 and 2005.

They found that the average time an adult patient spent with his or her primary care doctor during an office visit increased by 16 percent, from 18 minutes to 20.8 minutes. When you look at the increase in time spent by individual service or task, the time spent with a doctor for a regular check-up increased by 3.4 minutes; for high blood pressure, 3.7 minutes; for diagnosis of diabetes, 4.2 minutes; and for diagnosis of joint disease, 5.9 minutes.

Overall, more adults made visits to their primary care doctors during the period studied: there was a 10 percent increase in visits, from about 273 million in 1997 to 338 million in 2005. The researchers also noted that quality of care improved when it was evaluated based on medical, counseling, and screening indicators.

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The study’s authors suggest that patients may be spending more time with their primary care doctors because doctors are seeing older, more ill patients. In addition, some patients are walking into their doctor’s office with a list of questions or information they have gathered from the internet or other materials they have read.

Patients who want to make the most of the time they spend with their primary care physician should prepare themselves before their visit, according to Sherri Kaplan, PhD, MPH, who is currently assistant vice chancellor of healthcare and professor of medicine at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Kaplan has analyzed audiotapes of patient-doctor visits for decades to determine what determines good communication.

Generally, women are much better at asking questions and are more assertive than men, noted Dr. Kaplan in a Boston Globe article. Patients do better if they formulate their questions and make a list before they get to the doctor’s office. It is suggested that patients bring a list of all their medications, including supplements, to the office visit as well. Patients who may need help asking questions or who may benefit from emotional support during their visit should ask a spouse, child, or other trusted individual to accompany them.

As patients strive to get more involved with their health care, it means doctors must work more hours and see more patients to maintain their income, note the University of Michigan Health System researchers. Some strategies to free up doctors’ time include utilizing nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants to a greater degree and conducting group visits. Increased use of electronic medical records and better reimbursement for family physicians may also help improve patient care.

Boston Globe, Sept. 19, 2005
Chen LM et al. Archives of Internal Medicine 2009 Nov; 169(2): 1866-72



Yes, Betty, I agree. Good communication between patients and their doctors is critical for better health care. Let's hope they teach better communication skills in medical schools.