Since electronic medical records first appeared on the scene, one issue has continued to trouble patients: doctors spend more time looking at the computer screen than they do paying attention to patients. The issue hasn’t resolved itself as more doctors adopted EMRs, either.
A new study from Northwestern University found that doctors spend about one-third of their time looking at a screen, which can hamper communication with patients, not to mention hurt their patient satisfaction ratings.
“When doctors spend that much time looking at the computer, it can be difficult for patients to get their attention,” said Enid Montague, author of the study. “It’s likely that the ability to listen, problem-solve and think creatively is not optimal when physicians’ eyes are glued to the screen.”
So what’s a doctor to do? Most EMRs (at least, the point-and-click kind) are more demanding than patients, with all their drop-down menus and checkboxes.
A happy medium is possible, but it doesn’t come about on its own. Some things doctors can do to improve communication include
- Explaining to the patient why they are fiddling with the computer
- Looking up from the screen occasionally, even when it doesn’t feel natural, to make eye contact with the patient
- Documenting as much of the chart as possible when the patient isn’t around
- Learning all the EMR shortcuts to reduce the time spend documenting an encounter
The way a doctor handles the EMR while the patient is in the room can make or break a relationship with patients. Patients threaten to leave their current doctors all the time when they aren’t satisfied, and many follow through with it when they feel like they are being ignored.
EMRs are here to stay, so doctors don’t have the option of ignoring the EMR in favor of the patient, either. Some medical programs have started training students on exam-room etiquette. Striking a balance between human and technological needs takes some practice, but it becomes second nature for most doctors once they’ve adjusted their workflow to accommodate the third party—the EMR.