EHRs distracting physicians from patient encounters, study says

February 3, 2014

A recent study confirms that because physicians spend so much time looking at EHRs, they miss out on nonverbal communication cues from patients.

It is no secret that electronic health records (EHRs) have changed the way physicians focus on their patients, while capturing their medical information in exam rooms. A recent study confirms that because physicians spend so much time looking at EHRs, they miss out on nonverbal communication cues from patients.

Overall, physicians with EHRs in their exam rooms spend one-third of their time looking at computer screens, compared with physicians who use paper charts who only spent about 9% of their time looking at them. The study, conducted by Northwestern University and published by the International Journal of Medical Informatics in January, measured eye-gaze patterns during 100 patient visits when EHRs were used. The authors of the study say that evaluating where physicians and patients look during visits can help with future training and technology development.

“When doctors spend that much time looking at the computer, it can be difficult for patients to get their attention,” says Enid Montague, PhD, first 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.”

The study also found that physicians are missing opportunities to engage patients using the EHR. Physicians don’t notice when patients are looking at EHRs, don’t see the value in inviting patients to interact with the EHR, and often block the patient’s view of the computer screen. Patients looked at EHRs only 11% of the visit. Montague suggests that EHRs could be designed with more interactive elements for patients to follow along with in the future.

“Not only does the doctor spend less time looking at the patient, the patient also almost always looks at the computer screen, whether or not the patient can see or understand what is on the screen,” Montague says.