Electronic health records (EHR) have the ability to transform the current healthcare system into a place of efficiently executed, high-quality, and patient-centered medicine, but only if physicians know how to use these systems to their maximum potential.
Under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009, eligible physicians received thousands of dollars in financial incentives to purchase and implement EHR in their practices via the “Meaningful Use” program. Compared to paper charts, EHR promotes quality healthcare by improving provider-to-provider communication, increasing patient access to their medical information, endorsing patient safety, enhancing medical information security, and promoting transparent provider-patient relationships.
Physicians who have embraced EHR are struggling to effectively integrate the system into their practices because they must now divide their time between the patient and the computer. Unless used properly, EHR can negatively impact the patient encounter by reducing both verbal and nonverbal communication between physicians and patients. Good verbal communication allows a physician to gather a full history on a patient and to extract pertinent information about a chief complaint.
Nonverbal communication, such as eye contact and body positioning, may be even more important than verbal communication during patient encounters. A 2015 study published in Patient Education and Counseling indicates the quality of nonverbal communication has been directly linked to the patient’s level of comfort, degree of engagement and overall satisfaction during a healthcare encounter. This, in turn, significantly impacts a patient’s honesty with the physician and adherence to a treatment plan, according to follow-up studies.
Research from 2014 published in the International Journal of Medical Informatics found physicians who use a technology-centered approach have the longest patient encounter times, but they also have the lowest patient satisfaction scores. This is because they spend the least amount of time gazing directly at their patients. Patient satisfaction does not depend on whether physicians use verbal or non-verbal cues (such as nodding their head) to show patients they are listening.
Rather, patient satisfaction and patient engagement depend on the patient’s ability to engage in direct eye contact with the physician and screen share with the physician when he or she turns his or her attention towards the computer. Unfortunately, most physicians do not do this. The average physician spends 30% to 50% of a patient encounter looking directly at the EHR, with the majority of that time spent typing in an office layout that does not allow the patient to remain engaged by screen sharing, according to 2013 research from the Journal of General Practice.