Most of their time—an average of 15.9 hours out of every 24-hour shift—is consumed instead by “indirect patient care,” primarily involving interactions with medical records and documentation, the study found.
“Even when interns were face-to-face with patients, much of it was spent multitasking—interacting with the electronic health records or coordinating care with other health care workers,” says lead study author Krisda Chaiyachati, MD, MPH, MSHP, of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, Philadelphia.
“Based on evidence and my own personal experiences, multitasking makes it difficult to complete any of these individual tasks well,” Dr. Chaiyachati says by email. “When doctors are multitasking, at minimum, we are creating inefficiencies in how we manage sick patients, and, hopefully, we are not creating mistakes that lead to harm.”
The U.S. spends more than $12 billion annually on graduate medical education, researchers note online April 15 in JAMA Internal Medicine.1 Despite this considerable investment, research to date hasn’t offered a clear picture of how residents balance patient care and educational activities.
For the current study, researchers observed 80 interns from six mid-Atlantic teaching programs over 2,173 hours. On half of the shifts, observers watched interns for at least 10.5 hours.
Observers sorted interns’ activities into several categories: education; going on patient rounds; work duties, such as doing procedures or updating medical records, transferring patient care to other providers; direct care like communicating with patients or families or doing evaluations; indirect care, such as reviewing lab results or medical records; or miscellaneous things, such as food or bathroom breaks.
Trainee physicians spent little time on direct patient care across all shifts, the study found.
They spent an average of 3.8 hours of a typical 24-hour period multi-tasking.
Using computers and dealing with electronic medical records while caring for patients may not always be a bad thing, says Christopher Moriates, MD, associate chair for quality, safety and value at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, Austin.
“It is important to realize that the tasks done in the computer—entering orders, reviewing lab or imaging results, reading notes by consultant physicians, etc.—are still vital patient care activities,” Dr. Moriates, author of an accompanying editorial, says by email.2
“Simply put, as more of these tasks (which physicians have always performed) are done electronically, more time will be spent with the computer,” Dr. Moriates says. “Just like how most people spend more time reading news on a computer or phone now rather than in newsprint, physicians spend more time performing tasks electronically.”