Recently in NEJM Journal Watch General Medicine, Abigail Zuger reviewed an article from the Journal of General Internal Medicine in which researchers examined how medical interns spend their time. The results from this time motion study might be concerning but are not unexpected. The investigators found that interns on inpatient rotations spend only 12% of their time in direct patient care and spend only 8 minutes daily with each patient on their inpatient services. Dr. Zuger notes this “distressing paucity” of direct patient care should cause leaders in graduate medical training to effect change in interns’ daily routines.
To those of us in training or just out of training, the reasons for less direct patient care are myriad and obvious:
- A focus on multidisciplinary care and ever-increasing specialization results in each medical patient having a dozen or more physicians, consultants, nurses, pharmacists, case managers, social workers, and therapists directly involved in care. At this core of this legion of providers stands the intern. This novice physician must field messages, pages, and advice from all arms of the treatment team. As such, the intern spends as much time coordinating care as he or she spends relaying messages and answering “quick questions” — which are never quick and rarely are questions.
- Patient acuity in academic centers also continues to rise. Patients on medical wards often are admitted with multiple comorbidities and in a state of disarray. Rare are the relatively straightforward admissions for uncomplicated pneumonia or CHF exacerbation. Thus, interns have to manage a number of active conditions, complex medication lists, and a barrage of patient data.
- In addition, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid pay us by DRGs and have also inculcated us to prevent 30-day readmissions. CMS will soon ask us to admit more patients to observation status. How do all of these shifts in payment affect a house officer? The intern has to spend all the more time ensuring safe and timely discharges. Tasks like medication reconciliations and communicating with outpatient providers suck up even more of the intern’s day at the expense of face time with the patient.
- Finally, documentation steals many a precious minute from the day. The considerations of patient acuity and reimbursement add to the burden of documentation leading to bloated notes that take far too much time to construct.
I am probably too young to be so cynical, but I do not see a shift in these routines occurring any time soon. And without be excessively cantankerous, I feel obligated to ask, “Does the percentage of interns’ time spent in direct patient care matter?”
An smaller percentage of interns’ time spent directly interfacing with patients may not mean that patients get worse care. We don’t have any direct data that the distressing paucity of direct patient care is resulting in poor outcomes. Moreover, the very “non-patient” tasks outlined above are entirely necessary in today’s inpatient environment. For example, if a patient is started on a LMWH bridge to warfarin in the hospital, figuring out how the LMWH will be paid for and who will follow the INR post-hospitalization is as important as time spent at the patient’s bedside.
Of course, I am not suggesting that intern work is inherently rewarding or educational. Most of us embark on this career path because we value interaction with actual human beings, not because we like electronic note templates. I myself romance about the days when internists actually took the time to perform thorough histories and physicals. But if we don’t encumber the interns with all of this work, who will do it?
Paul Bergl is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Insights on Residency Training, a part of Journal Watch.