Background: The objective of our study was to determine the typical length of ambulatory visits to a nationally representative sample of primary care physicians, and the patient, physician, practice, and visit characteristics affecting duration of visit.
Methods: We used an analysis of cross-sectional survey data to determine duration of visit and the characteristics associated with it. The data sources were a random sample of the 19,192 visits by adults to 686 primary care physicians contained in the 1991-1992 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, and the results of the Physician Induction Interview conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. Duration of visit was defined as the total time spent in face-to-face contact with the physician.
Results: Mean duration of visit was 16.3 minutes (standard deviation = 9.7). Multivariate analysis allowed the calculation of the independent effect on visit length of a variety of characteristics of patients, physicians, organizational/practice setting, geographic location, and visit content. Certain patient characteristics (increasing age and the presence of psychosocial problems) were associated with increased duration of visit. Visit content was also associated with increased duration, including ordering or performing 4 or more diagnostic tests (71% increase), Papanicolaou smears (34%), ambulatory surgical procedures (34%), patient admission to the hospital (32%), and 3 preventive screening tests (25%). Reduced duration of visit was associated with availability of non-physician support personnel and health maintenance organization and Medicaid insurance.
Conclusions: Multiple factors affect duration of visit. Clinicians, policymakers, and health system managers should take these considerations into account in managing physician resources during daily ambulatory practice.