Background: Primary care physicians report that there is insufficient time to meet patients' needs during clinical visits, but visit time has increased over the past decade.
Objective: To determine whether the number of clinical items addressed during the primary care visit has increased, and if so, whether this has been associated with changes in visit length and the pace of clinical work.
Design: Analysis of non-hospital-based adult primary care visits from 1997 to 2005, as reported in the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey.
Participants: A total of 46,431 adult primary care visits.
Measurements: We assessed changes over time for the total number of clinical items addressed per visit (including diagnoses, medications, tests ordered, and counseling), visit duration, and average available time per clinical item. In adjusted analyses we controlled for patient and physician characteristics.
Results: The number of clinical items addressed per visit increased from 5.4 to 7.1 from 1997 to 2005 (p < 0.001). Visit duration concurrently increased from 18.0 to 20.9 min (p < 0.001). The increase in the number of clinical items outpaced the increase in duration, resulting in a decrease in time per clinical item from 4.4 to 3.8 (p = 0.04). These changes occurred across patient age and payer status and were confirmed in adjusted analyses.
Conclusions: The volume of work associated with primary care visits has increased to a greater extent than has visit duration, resulting in less available time to address individual items. These findings have important implications for reimbursing physician time and improving the quality of care.