Study: EMRs' effect on docs' productivity depends on needs, workflow

By Molly Merrill
04:42 PM

Electronic medical records appear to have varying effects on different types of primary care physicians based on whether they do more information review or information entry, according to a UC Davis study.

The study, one of the first to measure the impact of electronic medical record-keeping on doctors' productivity, examined the use of a multi-million dollar information technology system, which digitized patient records and allowed for electronic prescriptions and messaging. The system was installed at six primary care offices from 2003 to 2006. The offices were part of a large primary care physician network affiliated with an academic medical center.

For the study, researchers analyzed the impact the technology had on physician productivity, collecting data on work hours and output before and after the introduction of EMR technology. The data was collected for about 100 physicians spread across three primary care categories – internal medicine, pediatrics and family.

"Prior to our study," said Hemant Bhargava, associate dean and professor of management and computer science at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, "there was controversy regarding the benefits of healthcare IT investments. In fact, there was some anecdotal evidence that these technologies reduced physician productivity."

The researchers found that the initial implementation of the EMR system resulted in a 25 percent to 33 percent drop in physician productivity. While significant, the drop was anticipated, Bhargava said.

"Initially, physicians and their staff had to learn the system," he explained. "After a month of utilization, physicians and their staff became more comfortable with the technology and productivity overall increased to just below starting levels, with interesting variations by unit."

Over the next few months, the researchers found that the impact of the new technology on productivity varied by physician group. Internal medicine units adjusted to the new technology and experienced a slight increase in productivity. In contrast, pediatricians and family practice doctors did not return to their original productivity levels and experienced a slightly lower productivity rate.

"These differences by unit suggest that there is a mismatch between technology design and the workflow requirements and health administration expectations for individual care units," Bhargava said.

He added, "Our research suggests that a 'one-size-fits-all' design does not work – the ideal technology design should vary by physicians' requirements and workflow demands."

The findings, Bhargava explained, can be more easily understood by breaking EMR technology use into two categories — information review and information entry.

The use of electronic medical records makes information review – patient history, notes from previous visits, charts of test data and radiological images – more efficient. These features are useful to internal medicine doctors, who tend to see a greater proportion of ill patients.

In contrast, pediatricians' work tends to involve more information entry and documentation for which EMR technology can be more time-consuming.

Bhargava suggests vendors and medical centers consider implementing different versions of electronic record keeping systems, tailoring the user interface, information entry and visualization features for different groups of physicians.

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