Time-saving tips for doctors who want to work more efficiently

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published August 19, 2021

Key Takeaways

If you feel like you work too many hours a week, you probably are—at least according to the statistics. In its 92nd Physician Report, Medical Economics found that on average, family medicine physicians worked 50 hours per week, whereas internists punched in at 52 hours per week in 2020. Moreover, men slightly outpaced women at 49 hours vs 48 hours. Practice owners also beat out non-practice owners at 50 vs 48 hours.

Considering that the average physician easily tops the conventional 40-hour workweek, time-saving tips are likely of great benefit. Here are five to consider.

Show EHR who’s boss

Electronic health records (EHR) were always meant to be a timesaver, but mastering their nuances can be tricky and time-consuming. It may be a good idea to engage in additional training sessions and webinars to master your practice’s software. Additional training is not only a good idea for you, but also for your coworkers. Don’t rely on one office “expert” (who may call in sick or switch roles).

As detailed in a blog post in the American Academy of Family Physicians' journal FPM, certain steps can be taken to improve efficiency with EHR.

  • First, set up the computer in the exam room in a fashion that allows you to alternate between the screen and looking at the patient with minimal change in gaze. Don’t have your back toward your patient.

  • Ask your patients to complete electronic questionnaires to facilitate data collection and input for common conditions like sleep apnea, ADHD, and others, which can reduce the number of questions you need to ask your patient.

  • Master the use of templates and smart phrases to decrease the amount of typing needed. This step is especially important with repeated notes and phrases.

  • Avoid long paragraphs in lieu of short phrases (eg, CAD, TID, BID, PO).

  • Train your dictating software to increase precision and accuracy.

Finally, you may want to read up on new rules proposed by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services that could affect EHRs. Click here to learn more about this topic on our blog, PhysicianSense.  

Gotta get a scribe

Scribes are a phenomenal and often-overlooked resource who can save you time and keep you concentrating on what’s most important: helping your patients. These documentation assistants transcribe information during clinical visits in real-time. They input patient data, orders, and referrals into the EHR so the physicians don't have to.

In a small cross-over study published in JAMA, the use of scribes was linked to a boatload of benefits. Primary care physicians (PCPs) who used them reported less time spent in after-hours EHR documentation, with documentation more likely to be completed by the next business day. Moreover, PCPs using scribes were more likely to report spending more than 75% of the visit directly communicating with patients. Of note, patient perception of scribes was good, with 61.2% reporting a positive influence on the visit, and only 2.4% reporting negative sentiments.

“Medical scribes were associated with decreased physician EHR documentation burden, improved work efficiency, and improved visit interactions,” concluded the study authors. “Our results support the use of medical scribes as one strategy for improving physician workflow and visit quality in primary care.”

Promote your digital portal 

Not only is it a good idea for physicians to be on top of their digital game, but patients who make the most of technology can also save physicians time.

Despite the availability of portals, 63% of insured patients don’t use them, according to research cited by the AMA. The reasons attributed include a preference to speak directly with the physician, no perceived need to use the portal, lack of online medical records, no internet access, and concerns over privacy. Of note, 40% of patients report they were not offered a portal. 

Make sure staff coaches patients on how to use the portal and assures these patients that portals are a safe option when accessing appointment schedules, medical histories, and lab results. Patients should also be apprised of when it is prudent to text or email the physician via the portal, and how long it will take to respond.

Set limits

In a perfect world, there would be no time constraints on physician appointments. In fact, results from an older qualitative study from the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that physicians would much prefer not to be constrained by time.

“[A]lthough the strategy of disregarding managed care limits on time spent with patients—and accepting financial consequences—might serve as a potential strategy other physicians are willing to try as they seek to cope with an unpalatable policy, our findings suggest that there may be a larger price to pay in terms of satisfaction with the profession in general,” the authors wrote. “In any case, this strategy does little to address broader and more deeply entrenched structural arrangements that determine how physicians are compensated and how doctor-patient interactions are managed. Tackling these matters will require sustained collective action on the part of physicians, professional associations, politicians, and the public at large.”

In reality, time limitations must be imposed on a patient visit to get through the day and meet professional responsibilities. One strategy is to let the patient know that you have a limited amount of time to begin with and work on prioritizing needs. Of course, if an appointment occasionally needs to spill over, allowances can be made.

Finally, in addition to creating efficiencies in the workplace, carving out more free time in your personal life can improve your work-life balance. Read How ‘buying’ time can make you a happier doctor on MDLinx.

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