Do longer visits with primary care physicians equal better care?

January 6, 2010

In spite of decreasing income and increasing pressures for greater efficiency, primary care physicians are spending more time with patients during typical office visits rather than less time.

In spite of decreasing income and increasing pressures for greater efficiency, primary care physicians are spending more time with patients during typical office visits rather than less time. Although the quality of care has improved, there is little evidence that longer visits with physicians are associated with better care for medication quality indicators.

Chen and colleagues used data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey to examine the average length of primary care office visits and how that influenced patients’ quality of care. They supplemented the data with population estimates from the US Census Bureau.

During the study, the number of physician visits increased. The duration of those visits increased by 16%, from an average of 18 to 20.8 minutes. Visits for a general medical examination and for 3 illnesses-diabetes mellitus, essential hypertension, and arthropathy-increased by an average of 3.4 minutes. Visits with general internists averaged 1.7 minutes longer than visits with general or family practitioners, possibly because of the time needed to see older patients and increased patient participation in decision making.

The authors noted that the quality of patient care was moderately associated with a longer visit, but this was mostly related to patients needing counseling or screening-based care.