The intensity of physicians' work in patient visits--implications for the coding of patient evaluation and management services

N Engl J Med. 1999 Jul 29;341(5):337-41. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199907293410506.


Background: Clinicians use visit codes to bill for services involving the evaluation of patients and the management of their care. The existing guidelines for coding and documenting these services, as well as proposed revisions, have been criticized as complex, clinically irrelevant, and costly. We investigated whether easily measured characteristics of physician-patient visits accurately reflect differences in the amount of work performed. Such characteristics might provide the basis for a simple and equitable physician-payment scheme.

Methods: We collected information about the amount of physicians' work, the time spent in encounters with patients, and characteristics of patients and visits for 19,143 physician-patient visits in the practices of 339 urologists, rheumatologists, and general internists. Physicians recorded the actual time involved in evaluating the patient and managing his or her care during each visit and estimated the work involved in relation to a standardized, hypothetical visit. We used multivariate linear regression to identify factors related to differences in the total amount of work and to calculate work and work intensity (work per minute) for different types of visits.

Results: The duration of the face-to-face encounter with the patient or family (encounter time) was strongly predictive of the total amount of work. Total work, however, did not increase in direct proportion to encounter time. Visits with shorter encounter times were more intense than longer ones, in part because the work involved in providing fixed services, such as review of records and entry of information, did not vary in direct proportion to the length of the face-to-face encounter. Work intensity was greater for new patients than for established patients, for patients referred by other physicians than for those who were not, and for patients with new rather than previously existing problems.

Conclusions: A simple coding scheme based on time spent by the physician in the face-to-face encounter and a limited set of characteristics of the visit would accurately reflect total work in actual practice. A fee structure based on these factors and the inverse relation between work per minute and the encounter time would provide equitable payment while encouraging efficiency and discouraging "upcoding" of services.

MeSH terms

  • Data Collection
  • Humans
  • Insurance Claim Reporting / classification
  • Linear Models
  • Medicare
  • Office Visits / statistics & numerical data
  • Professional Practice / statistics & numerical data*
  • Relative Value Scales
  • Task Performance and Analysis*
  • United States
  • Workload / statistics & numerical data*