Measuring Primary Care Exam Length Using Electronic Health Record Data

Med Care. 2021 Jan;59(1):62-66. doi: 10.1097/MLR.0000000000001450.


Background: Physicians' time with patients is a critical input to care, but is typically measured retrospectively through survey instruments. Data collected through the use of electronic health records (EHRs) offer an alternative way to measure visit length.

Objective: To measure how much time primary care physicians spend with their patients, during each visit.

Research design: We used a national source of EHR data for primary care practices, from a large health information technology company. We calculated exam length and schedule deviations based on timestamps recorded by the EHR, after implementing sequential data refinements to account for non-real-time EHR use and clinical multitasking. Observational analyses calculated and plotted the mean, median, and interquartile range of exam length and exam length relative to scheduled visit length.

Subjects: A total of 21,010,780 primary care visits in 2017.

Measures: We identified primary care visits based on physician specialty. For these visits, we extracted timestamps for EHR activity during the exam. We also extracted scheduled visit length from the EHR's practice management functionality.

Results: After data refinements, the average primary care exam was 18.0 minutes long (SD=13.5 min). On average, exams ran later than their scheduled duration by 1.2 minutes (SD=13.5 min). Visits scheduled for 10 or 15 minutes were more likely to exceed their allotted time than visits scheduled for 20 or 30 minutes.

Conclusions: Time-stamped EHR data offer researchers and health systems an opportunity to measure exam length and other objects of interest related to time.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Electronic Health Records / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Office Visits / statistics & numerical data*
  • Physicians, Primary Care
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Time Factors