Electronic Medical Records and Efficiency and Productivity During Office Visits

Published Online: April 20, 2011
Michael F. Furukawa, PhD

Objective: To estimate the relationship between electronic medical record (EMR) use and efficiency of utilization and provider productivity during visits to US office-based physicians.


Study Design: Cross-sectional analysis of the 2006-2007 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey.


Methods: The sample included 62,710 patient visits to 2625 physicians. EMR systems included demographics, clinical notes, prescription orders, and laboratory and imaging results. Efficiency was measured as utilization of examinations, laboratory tests, radiology procedures, health education, nonmedication treatments, and medications. Productivity was measured as total services provided per 20-minute period. Survey-weighted regressions estimated association of EMR use with services provided, visit intensity/duration, and productivity. Marginal effects were estimated by averaging across all visits and by major reason for visit.


Results: EMR use was associated with higher probability of any examination (7.7%, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 2.4%, 13.1%); any laboratory test (5.7%, 95% CI = 2.6%, 8.8%); any health education (4.9%, 95% CI = 0.2%, 9.6%); and fewer laboratory tests (−7.1%, 95% CI = −14.2%, −0.1%). During pre/post surgery visits, EMR use was associated with 7.3% (95% CI= −12.9%, −1.8%) fewer radiology procedures. EMR use was not associated with utilization of nonmedication treatments and medications, or visit duration. During routine visits for a chronic problem, EMR use was associated with 11.2% (95% CI = 5.7%, 16.8%) more diagnostic/screening services provided per 20-minute period.


Conclusions: EMR use had a mixed association with efficiency and productivity during office visits. EMRs may improve provider productivity, especially during visits for a new problem and routine chronic care.


(Am J Manag Care. 2011;17(4):296-303)

Health information technology is widely believed to enhance quality of care and patient safety and to lower costs and improve efficiency.1,2 Despite these potential benefits, adoption of electronic medical records (EMRs) by US physicians in office settings has been slow.3,4 Uncertain financial return and loss in productivity are often cited as barriers to adoption.3,5 Nonetheless, surveys report that physicians perceive that EMR use can improve work flow, the quality of clinical decisions, and the delivery of  preventive care.3,5

Empirical studies demonstrating the impact of EMR systems on the efficiency and quality of care in ambulatory settings have been limited.6,7 Most prior work has focused on the relationships between specific EMR functions and medication safety8 and quality of care.9,10 In contrast, relatively few studies have examined the association of EMR with efficiency of utilization and provider productivity.2,6,7 The economic benefits of integrated EMR functionality from commercial systems used in community settings remains uncertain.11

This study examined the association between EMR use and efficiency and productivity during office visits using a large-scale, nationally representative data set. The findings from this study provide important evidence of the value of health information technology in ambulatory care.


Electronic Medical Record Use and Efficiency of Utilization

In theory, EMR use has the potential to improve efficiency of utilization. An EMR system may include clinical notes, problem/medication lists, and test results. These functions can provide information about chronic conditions and prior utilization, which might reduce redundant and inappropriate diagnostic/screening services and medications. Computer-generated care suggestions and automated reminders could improve adherence to evidence-based guidelines and might increase provision of some services. Thus, in theory, EMR might increase or decrease utilization of services depending on the EMR functionality and the reason for visit.1

Prior studies of the association of EMR use with the efficiency of utilization have been limited.6,7,12,13 Some evidence suggests that EMR use can improve care for chronic illness and preventive care.14-19 However, 3 large-scale studies found little relationship between EMR use and quality of care in ambulatory settings.20-22 Whether and to what extent that EMR use is associated with the level of utilization during visits remains uncertain.

Electronic Medical Record Use and Provider Productivity

An EMR system can automate manual tasks, streamline documentation, and improve access to information. These EMR functions can support clinical decision making and might reduce physician time, at least in theory.1 Improvements in productivity could allow physicians to see more patients per day or to provide more services to the same patient during each visit.

Evidence of the impact of EMR use on provider time efficiency is mixed,23 and few studies have examined the relationship between EMR use and visit duration in ambulatory settings.24,25 Prior studies of the association of EMR use with provider productivity have also been limited, and study designs have varied in their unit of analysis.26-35 Whether and to what extent that EMR use is associated with visit intensity, duration, and productivity per visit remains an open question.


Data Source

The study used data from the public use version of the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS) from 2006 and 2007. Conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the NAMCS is a survey of visits to US nonfederal office–based physicians. The multistage probability design is based on a random sample of physicians stratified by geographic area and specialty. Patient visits during a randomly selected week were sampled for each participating physician. Patient characteristics, reason for visit, and utilization of medical services were reported on individual patient record forms. Information about the physician and their practice, including EMR use, were captured during a separate intake survey. The NAMCS included weights for visits and physicians that allowed for the generation of nationally representative estimates. The 2006 and 2007 surveys collected information on 62,170 visits to 2625 physician respondents, and the full sample was included in the analysis.

Electronic Medical Record Use

The main variable of interest is whether the physician’s practice used an EMR system. The NAMCS asked “Does this practice use electronic medical records (not including billing records)?” The survey also asked whether the practice’s EMR system or another computerized system included any of 13 specific EMR functions (Table 1). Nonresponse and survey responses of “turned off” and “unknown” were included as not having the EMR system or function. Based on definitions developed by a consensus panel,4,36 EMR use in this study was defined as a Basic or Fully Functional EMR system with at least the minimum set of functions.

Efficiency of Utilization and Provider Productivity

The NAMCS collected details on the number and type of medical services ordered or provided during each visit. The NAMCS allowed physicians to report 2 additional diagnostic/screening services, which were classified by International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision, Clinical Modification (ICD-9-CM) procedure code. These services were included in laboratory tests if the ICD-9-CM code started with 90 or 91 and in radiology procedures if the ICD-9-CM code started with 87, 88, or 92. Measures of efficiency of utilization and provider productivity during office visits were specified based on prior literature11,37,38 and are reported in Table 2.

Major Reason for Visit

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Issue: April 2011
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