Medical interns spend just 12 percent of their time examining and talking with patients, and more than 40 percent of their time behind a computer, according to a new Johns Hopkins study that closely followed first-year residents at Baltimore's two large academic medical centers. Indeed, the study found, interns spent nearly as much time walking (7 percent) as they did caring for patients at the bedside.
Compared with similar time-tracking studies done before 2003, when hospitals were first required to limit the number of consecutive working hours for trainees, the researchers found that interns since then spend significantly less time in direct contact with patients. Changes to the 2003 rules limited interns to no more than 30 consecutive hours on duty, and further restrictions in 2011 allow them to work only 16 hours in a row.
"One of the most important learning opportunities in residency is direct interaction with patients," says Lauren Block, M.D., M.P.H., a clinical fellow in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of the study published online in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. "Spending an average of eight minutes a day with each patient just doesn't seem like enough time to me."
"Most of us went into medicine because we love spending time with the patients. Our systems have squeezed this out of medical training," says Leonard Feldman, M.D., the study's senior author and a hospitalist at The Johns Hopkins Hospital (JHH).
For the study, trained observers followed 29 internal medicine interns—doctors in their first year out of medical school—at JHH and the University of Maryland Medical Center for three weeks during January 2012, for a total of 873 hours. The observers used an iPod Touch app to mark down what the interns were doing at every minute of their shifts. If they were multi-tasking, the observers were told to count the activity most closely related to direct patient care.
The researchers found that interns spent 12 percent of their time talking with and examining patients; 64 percent on indirect patient care, such as placing orders, researching patient history and filling out electronic paperwork; 15 percent on educational activities, such as medical rounds; and 9 percent on miscellaneous activities. The researchers acknowledge that it's unclear what proportion of time spent at the bedside is ideal, or whether the interns they studied in the first year of a three-year internal medicine training program make up the time lost with patients later in residency. But 12 percent, Feldman says, "seems shockingly low at face value. Interns spend almost four more times as long reviewing charts than directly engaging patients."