Doctors need to maintain patient eye contact while using EHRs

Electronic health records are important tools that can help physicians deliver higher quality care to their patients. However, EHRs are only as successful as the providers who are using them, which is why it is important for doctors to take their time to learn how to utilize them properly. This means not just learning the basics of the system, such as how to enter in basic patient data, but how to do so skillfully without interrupting patient interaction. Patients value the time they spend with their doctors, and they want to feel as though they are being paid attention to – which they may not feel if their doctors are spending the majority of their appointment staring at a computer screen. 

Recently, researchers from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine conducted a study that was published in the journal Medical Informatics, which found that if physicians spend too much time staring at a computer screen while meeting with a patient, it may negatively impact their ability to interact with patients and may cause them to miss nonverbal clues. 

"When doctors spend that much time looking at the computer, it can be difficult for patients to get their attention," said Enid Montague, first author of the study, quoted by News-Medical. "It's likely that the ability to listen, problem-solve and think creatively is not optimal when physicians' eyes are glued to the screen."

To come to their conclusions, the researchers used cameras to record 100 separate doctor-patient interactions. During all of these visits, the doctors were using EHRs, and the researchers examined how often they made eye contact with their patients and if this seemed to impact their communication. They found that when doctors looked at paper files, they looked at the patient more compared to when they were using EHRs. Furthermore, when EHRs were employed, the patients would look at them as well – regardless of whether they understood what they were reading on the screen. 

The scientists explained that this information could be used to help design future EHRs that will make it easier for doctors to enter in important information while maintaining eye contact with a patient. 

"The purpose of electronic health records is to enable health care workers to provide more effective, efficient, coordinated care," Montague said, quoted by News-Medical. "By understanding the dynamic nature of eye-gaze patterns and how technology impacts these patterns, we can contribute to future EHR designs that foster more effective doctor-patient interaction."

Maintaining a good environment for patients
Medical Economics spoke to Jason Mitchell, M.D., director of the Center for Health Information Technology at the American Academy of Family Physicians, who explained that doctors cannot simply pretend that the EHR is not there – they need to acknowledge that it is a distraction and address the matter with their patients. The news source recommended that doctors show their patients what they are doing on the EHR so that the two of them can go over things together. This way, even if they are both staring at the screen, the patient and doctor are still interacting with each other. 

Furthermore, doctors should understand that the better acquainted they become with how their EHR works, the more easily they will be able to operate it while maintaining patient interaction. This is why it is important for health care administrators to make sure that their staff is comfortable with navigating EHR software. Physicians who are struggling to easily use these systems should consider seeking help from their vendor or regional extension center.