Objective: To evaluate the impact of exam-room computers on communication between clinicians and patients.
Design and methods: Longitudinal, qualitative study using videotapes of regularly scheduled visits from 3 points in time: 1 month before, 1 month after, and 7 months after introduction of computers into the exam room.
Setting: Primary care medical clinic in a large integrated delivery system.
Participants: Nine clinicians (6 physicians, 2 physician assistants, and 1 nurse practitioner) and 54 patients.
Results: The introduction of computers into the exam room affected the visual, verbal, and postural connection between clinicians and patients. There were variations across the visits in the magnitude and direction of the computer's effect. We identified 4 domains in which exam-room computing affected clinician-patient communication: visit organization, verbal and nonverbal behavior, computer navigation and mastery, and spatial organization of the exam room. We observed a range of facilitating and inhibiting effects on clinician-patient communication in all 4 domains. For 2 domains, visit organization and verbal and nonverbal behavior, facilitating and inhibiting behaviors observed prior to the introduction of the computer appeared to be amplified when exam-room computing occurred. Likewise, exam-room computing involving navigation and mastery skills and spatial organization of the exam-room created communication challenges and opportunities. In all 4 domains, there was little change observed in exam-room computing behaviors from the point of introduction to 7-month follow-up.
Conclusions: Effective use of computers in the outpatient exam room may be dependent upon clinicians' baseline skills that are carried forward and are amplified, positively or negatively, in their effects on clinician-patient communication. Computer use behaviors do not appear to change much over the first 7 months. Administrators and educators interested in improving exam-room computer use by clinicians need to better understand clinician skills and previous work habits associated with electronic medical records. More study of the effects of new technologies on the clinical relationship is also needed.