Many may think the doctor’s work is done when he or she leaves the exam room, but a new study shows that primary care physicians are burdened by hours of additional unpaid work.  As healthcare reform prepares to pour millions of patients into the healthcare system, many primary care physicians are concerned that their unpaid workload will only increase.

This unpaid work is even further compounded by the fact that primary care physicians currently earn about half the salary of specialists. With rising unpaid work and a small paycheck, it’s not surprising that medical students are swarming to specialty fields and running from primary care. This problem will only cripple the healthcare system, which will need more primary care physicians to meet the needs of an estimated 30 million newly insured people in the coming years.

This problem is clearly illuminated in a study published on Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. This study used electronic health records to track all the tasks completed by a practice with five primary care physicians over a year.

The study revealed that while each physician saw an average of 18 patients per day at an average payment of $70 per visit, each doctor was unpaid for an excessive number of daily tasks that included:

  • 24 telephone calls to patients, specialists and others
  • 12 drug prescriptions written
  • 20 laboratory reports read
  • 14 consultation reports from specialists examined
  • 11 X-ray and other imaging reports read
  • 17 e-mail messages interpreting test results, consulting with other doctors or advising patients wrote and sent

These are alarming numbers, and it’s no wonder why primary care physicians are worried about what’s to come with the new healthcare legislation. While the new legislation does create increased Medicare payments and financial incentives to purchase and meaningfully use electronic health records, primary care physicians need more.

This study should be a call to action to improve the payment structure for physicians, especially those in primary care.  However, payment is not the only issue here. Efficiency and productivity must increase to meet the growing needs of patients and decrease the burden of the unpaid workload.

See the original article in the New York Times