Patient visits are changing amid new trends and challenges in healthcare. In the past decade, nearly every physician switched to electronic health records. Digital documentation has led to new workflows that affect the patient encounter. The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in telehealth. Amidst these changes, are doctors spending less time with patients?

Are doctors spending less time with patients?

The short answer is “no.” While it’s hard to pinpoint a meaningful average for patient visit times, studies indicate that doctors have spent roughly 13 to 24 minutes with patients for the past three or more decades.

Data from the 1990s reveal some debates about physicians’ average time spent with patients. Surveys from those years placed the average around 17 minutes, but competing studies claimed the actual number was closer to 10 minutes. Other research found that physicians and their staff typically overreport patient visit times by about 4 minutes.

A 2021 publication used time-stamped EHR data from 21 million primary care visits to estimate average exam length. The authors conclude that the average primary care exam lasts 18 minutes, consistent with estimates derived from more common methods like retrospective surveys.

While about half of physicians reported experiencing a permanent reduction in patient volume due to COVID-19, the impact was marginal for most. The weekly average number of patients doctors see dropped from 76 to 71 in 2021, with predictable variation across specialties. While we could expect fewer patients to lead to longer visits, visit times average a similar length today as in 2019. 

How long is the typical doctor visit?

A review of 2018 data suggests that most U.S. physicians spend between 13 and 24 minutes with patients. About 1 in 4 spend less than 12 minutes, and roughly 1 in 10 spend more than 25 minutes.

Another 2017 study of 8 million primary care visits found that the median physician in the sample spent a mean of 18.9 minutes with each patient. Another study using 2017 data from 21 million visits showed that the average primary care exam was 18 minutes long.

While there will be variation across specialties, 18 minutes is a reasonable estimate for the average primary care visit length.

Histogram of Primary Care Physician Mean Visit Length from a 2017 data set shows that doctors aren't spending less time with patients
Figure: Histogram of Primary Care Physician Mean Visit Length from a 2017 data set (Neprash et al. 2023, JAMA Health Forum)

Have EHRs changed the length of patient visits?

Medscape’s annual Physician Compensation Report is an important data source that surveys roughly 18,000 doctors about things like their salary, hours worked, and time spent with patients. If EHR adoption affected how long doctors spend with patients, we could expect their surveys to register a change between 2011 and 2018.

Contrary to what you might expect, physician-patient time has remained constant since widespread EHR adoption. Medscape last asked about time spent with patients in 2018. In that survey, 61 percent of physicians reported spending 13-24 minutes with patients. In 2016, 60 percent of doctors chose the same range. Medscape’s annual surveys from 2011 show that most doctors report the same range of 13-24 minutes per patient visit.

Doctors are busier. Why aren’t doctors spending less time with patients?

Visit lengths probably haven’t changed because physicians enjoy interacting with patients. When asked about the most rewarding aspect of their job, most doctors talk about gratitude, patient relationships, and knowing they’re making the world better.

Research shows that physicians experience less job satisfaction when they have limited time with patients. More extended visits are also connected to positive patient outcomes. When patients get more time with doctors, they tend to be more satisfied with their care, experience reduced medication prescription rates, and are less likely to file malpractice claims.

So why are doctors burnt out?

Physician burnout is worse than ever in 2023. Defined as the long-term stress reaction that causes providers to lose satisfaction and a sense of efficacy in their work, physician burnout reflects a mismatch between doctors’ values and their day-to-day reality. 

What’s causing the mismatch?

Doctors value time with patients and patient visit times are about as long as they’ve always been. But the rest of physicians’ work days are changing. Today, the average doctor spends more time than ever – nearly 16 hours per week – on documentation and administrative tasks.

Over the past decade, administrative tasks have occupied a growing share of physicians’ work time. In 2018, 70 percent of physicians said they spend over 10 hours weekly on paperwork and administrative tasks. In 2017, that number was 57 percent. In 2014, just a third of doctors spent so much time on paperwork.

Most physicians would tell you that their experience of practicing medicine differs from a decade ago. However, when we look at the numbers, patient visit times are not changing. Doctors get the same amount of time with patients as they always have but feel overburdened by documentation and other tasks that take the joy out of practice.

Comments are closed.