Objectives: The purpose of the study was to describe the number of problems addressed during family practice outpatient visits, the nature of additional problems raised, how they affect the duration of the visit, and how well they are reflected in the billing record.
Study design: Cross-sectional.
Population: We studied a total 266 randomly selected adult patient encounters representing 37 physicians.
Outcomes measured: A problem was defined as an issue requiring physician action in the form of a decision, diagnosis, treatment, or monitoring. Visit duration and the number of billing diagnoses were also assessed.
Results: On average, 2.7 problems and 8 physician actions were observed during an encounter. More than one problem was addressed during 73% of the encounters; 36% of these additional problems were raised by the physician and 58% by the patient. On average, each additional problem increased the length of the visit by 2.5 minutes (P<.001). The concordance between the number of problems observed and the number of problems on the billing sheet indicated a trend toward underbilling the number of problems addressed.
Conclusions: Multiple problems are commonly addressed during family practice outpatient visits and are raised by both the physicians and the patients. Our findings suggest that current views of physician productivity and the billing record are poor indicators of the reality of providing primary care.