Four minutes for a patient, twenty seconds for a relative - an observational study at a university hospital

BMC Health Serv Res. 2010 Apr 9;10:94. doi: 10.1186/1472-6963-10-94.


Background: In the modern hospital environment, increasing possibilities in medical examination techniques and increasing documentation tasks claim the physicians' energy and encroach on their time spent with patients. This study aimed to investigate how much time physicians at hospital wards spend on communication with patients and their families and how much time they spend on other specific work tasks.

Methods: A non-participatory, observational study was conducted in thirty-six wards at the University Medical Center Freiburg, a 1700-bed academic hospital in Germany. All wards belonging to the clinics of internal medicine, surgery, radiology, neurology, and to the clinic for gynaecology took part in the study. Thirty-four ward doctors from fifteen different medical departments were observed during a randomly chosen complete work day. The Physicians' time for communication with patients and relatives and time spent on different working tasks during one day of work were assessed.

Results: 374 working hours were analysed. On average, a physician's workday on a university hospital ward added up to 658.91 minutes (10 hrs 58 min; range 490 - 848 min). Looking at single items of time consumption on the evaluation sheet, discussions with colleagues ranked first with 150 minutes on average. Documentation and administrative requirements took an average time of 148 minutes per day and ranked second. Total time for communication with patients and their relatives was 85 minutes per physician and day. Consequently, the available time for communication was 4 minutes and 17 seconds for each patient on the ward and 20 seconds for his or her relatives. Physicians assessed themselves to communicate twice as long with patients and sevenfold with relatives than they did according to this study.

Conclusions: Workload and time pressure for physicians working on hospital wards are high. To offer excellent medical treatment combined with patient centred care and to meet the needs of patients and relatives on hospital wards, physicians should be given more time to focus on core clinical tasks. Time and health care management solutions to minimize time pressure are required. Further research is needed to assess quality of communication in hospital settings.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Communication*
  • Family
  • Forms and Records Control / statistics & numerical data
  • Germany
  • Hospital Departments
  • Hospitals, University*
  • Humans
  • Medical History Taking / statistics & numerical data
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Time Factors
  • Work Schedule Tolerance / psychology