Electronic Health Records May Make Doctors Bad At Patient Eye Contact

Electronic health records have the potential to streamline the entire health care experience, enabling doctors to review a patient's medical history in real-time. But a new study shows one potential trap doctors may fall into when using these records: looking too much at the computer screen, and not enough at the actual patient.

Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin found that when a patient visits a doctor who uses electronic health records in his or her exam room, the doctor ends up looking at the screen one-third of the time.

And "when doctors spend that much time looking at the computer, it can be difficult for patients to get their attention," study researcher Enid Montague, an assistant professor in medicine, general internal medicine and geriatrics at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, explained in a statement. "It's likely that the ability to listen, problem-solve and think creatively is not optimal when physicians' eyes are glued to the screen."

The new study, published in the International Journal of Medical Informatics, involved analysis of 100 doctor visits that were recorded with video cameras. In all of these doctor visits, the doctors used electronic health records to gain access to the patients' data. The researchers video-taped the visits to analyze eye gaze between doctor and patient, as well as between the doctor or patient and the computer screen.

Watching the videos, the researchers found that doctors spent more time looking at the computer screen, and less time looking at the patient. Plus, the patient spent more time looking at the computer screen, regardless of whether he or she was actually understanding or able to see what was on the computer.