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Keywords:

  • Visit length;
  • patient–physician interaction;
  • quality of care;
  • clinical practice pattern;
  • primary care

Objectives. To use an innovative videotape analysis method to examine how clinic time was spent during elderly patients' visits to primary care physicians. Secondary objectives were to identify the factors that influence time allocations.

Data Sources. A convenience sample of 392 videotapes of routine office visits conducted between 1998 and 2000 from multiple primary care practices in the United States, supplemented by patient and physician surveys.

Research Design. Videotaped visits were examined for visit length and time devoted to specific topics—a novel approach to study time allocation. A survival analysis model analyzed the effects of patient, physician, and physician practice setting on how clinic time was spent.

Principal Findings. Very limited amount of time was dedicated to specific topics in office visits. The median visit length was 15.7 minutes covering a median of six topics. About 5 minutes were spent on the longest topic whereas the remaining topics each received 1.1 minutes. While time spent by patient and physician on a topic responded to many factors, length of the visit overall varied little even when contents of visits varied widely. Macro factors associated with each site had more influence on visit and topic length than the nature of the problem patients presented.

Conclusions. Many topics compete for visit time, resulting in small amount of time being spent on each topic. A highly regimented schedule might interfere with having sufficient time for patients with complex or multiple problems. Efforts to improve the quality of care need to recognize the time pressure on both patients and physicians, the effects of financial incentives, and the time costs of improving patient–physician interactions.