All in a day's work: an observational study to quantify how and with whom doctors on hospital wards spend their time

Med J Aust. 2008 May 5;188(9):506-9. doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2008.tb01762.x.


Objective: To quantify time doctors in hospital wards spend on specific work tasks, and with health professionals and patients.

Design: Observational time and motion study.

Setting: 400-bed teaching hospital in Sydney.

Participants: 19 doctors (seven registrars, five residents, seven interns) in four wards were observed between 08:30 and 19:00 for a total of 151 hours between July and December 2006.

Main outcome measures: Proportions of time in categories of work; proportions of tasks performed with health professionals and patients; proportions of tasks using specific information tools; rates of multitasking and interruptions.

Results: The greatest proportions of doctors' time were in professional communication (33%; 95% CI, 29%-38%); social activities, such as non-work communication and meal breaks (17%; 95% CI, 13%-21%), and indirect care, such as planning care (17%; 95% CI, 15%-19%). Multitasking involved 20% of time, and on average, doctors were interrupted every 21 minutes. Most tasks were completed with another doctor (56%; 95% CI, 55%-57%), while 24% (95% CI, 23%-25%) were undertaken alone and 15% (95% CI, 15%-16%) with a patient. Interns spent more time completing documentation and administrative tasks, and less time in direct care than residents and registrars. The time interns spent documenting (22%) was almost double the time they were engaged in direct patient care.

Conclusions: Two-thirds of doctors' time was consumed by three work categories: professional communication, social activities and indirect care. Doctors on wards are interrupted at considerably lower rates than those in emergency and intensive care units. The results confirm interns' previously reported dissatisfaction with their level of administrative work and documentation.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Hospital Units*
  • Hospitals, Teaching*
  • Humans
  • Interprofessional Relations*
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • New South Wales
  • Time and Motion Studies*
  • Workforce
  • Workload / statistics & numerical data*