Medical consulting time with patients at a London outpatient clinic fell between 1988 and 2001 with lost records accounting for a large amount of the time wasted, according to research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

The researchers at the Whittington Hospital, revisited a survey conducted in 1988 and found that the average time spent with patients had dropped from 7.6 minutes in 1988 to 4.8 minutes in 2001.

They calculated that 41% of the total consultation time of 8.2 minutes in 2001 was spent in delays and administration. Problems in finding results, especially radiology reports, were seen as the most easily addressed inefficiencies.

In 1988 the radiology department accounted for 13% of missing data and this increased to 71% in 2001. The apparent reason, say the researchers, is the vast growth in the radiology department’s workload without parallel increases in secretarial support meaning that written reports fall into arrears.

The researchers write, “The main message of our study is that patients lost out on consultation time between 1988 and 2001. If the inefficiencies could be cut by half, the patient could be given much more time and throughput could be increased by one third.

“The best approach is probably to introduce an electronic system for accessing and recording information on patients. This will need to be backed by investment in staff and training to maintain the quality of the system.”