Everyone wants to be more efficient at work, but doctors are notoriously time-starved. Not only are there not enough of U.S. physicians, but most also face a growing load of administrative responsibilities. The natural response has been to work harder and longer hours. But what many doctors need is productivity strategies to help them work smarter not harder.

The reality of growing administrative demands makes effective productivity habits for physicians more important than ever. Faster isn’t always better when it comes to seeing patients and delivering care. But when it comes to completing charts and other administrative tasks, efficiency is paramount.

In 2019 the majority of physicians (74%) report spending over 10 hours per week on paperwork, compared to just 1-4 hours in 2012. A shocking 36% of doctors now spend at least 20 hours per week on paperwork and administration. Productivity tips are more relevant to doctors today than ever before.

5 Productivity Tips for Doctors

Here are 5 productivity tips every doctor needs to know. Making small changes now could save you hours a week, leading to substantial improvements in your overall success and work-life balance.

1. Always have a plan

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

What approach do you take when you sit down to tackle your EHR in-basket full of progress notes, pre-visit lab results, and refill requests? Do you handle these in distracted busts throughout the day, or in a single dreaded session when you finish seeing patients? Maybe, like many family doctors, your charting and administrative work carriers over into evening pajama time.

Whatever approach you take, it’s important to have a plan and write it down.

You might think, “I have a great memory, I don’t need a to-do list.” Nevertheless research shows that people are significantly more likely to follow through on something if they write it somewhere. Following through means checking it off the to-do list, which means fewer stressful outstanding tasks nagging at your attention day after day, week after week.

2. Set priorities

One reason it’s valuable to write down your administrative tasks is that it helps you prioritize.

While patient care often has a deadline – the patient is waiting in the exam room – notes and paperwork are more flexible. As a result we can waste time constantly deciding what to do next or jumping between different tasks. Writing a list in order of priority frees up mental energy and increases your productivity.

Try this simple but transformative daily practice:

  • Write down 3-5 things you want to accomplish during the upcoming day. Since you will inevitably see patients, keep this focused on your administrative tasks and to-dos. You will be tempted to write more than 5 items, but don’t add more to-do items until you’ve completed the first 5. Make each item clear and actionable.
  • Prioritize your list with the most important items at the top.
  • Set aside dedicated time in your schedule for paperwork and administrative tasks. Begin with the first item and only move on to the second task when you’re done with the first.
  • Continue like this for the time allotted.
  • At the end of each day, review what you’ve accomplished and make your list for the following day.

When picking priority tasks, don’t overthink it. Ask yourself, “If these things were the only administrative tasks I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my effort?” Picking just five items at a time reduces stress and keeps you focused, and you will also feel more satisfied about the things you have accomplished.

3. Create distraction free zones

Not having a plan with clear priorities is the main thing that kills productivity. The other is distractions. This productivity tip may be the most important for doctors, because it’s the key to getting more done in the same amount of time.

Doctors are constantly juggling responsibilities, so the idea of removing distractions may seem impossible. Nevertheless it’s important to dedicate regular, distraction-free time time when you can focus on knocking out that to-do list of administrative tasks. This is how you get things done without spending two hours at home every night finishing paperwork.

To create a distraction free zone:

  • Find a quiet place
  • Prevent interruptions by letting your staff or others know that you’re busy
  • Put your phone on airplane mode
  • Disable all app notifications
  • Log out of Facebook, Instagram, etc.
  • Make yourself comfortable: have water and snacks at hand, listen to music that helps you focus, etc.

Preparation is the key to creating distraction free zones, especially for busy physicians. It may not be feasible to create such a space while at the clinic, and it is likely impossible during short intervals between patient visits. Come in early, only book appointments until an hour before you plan to leave the office, or otherwise adjust your schedule so you can focus on necessary administrative tasks without interruption.

4. Delegate

As a physician you work with a team and it’s important to involve them in managing your growing burden of administrative work.

One way to do this would be to develop a new collaborative workflow to restructure your EHR in-basket so you don’t get behind. Dr. James Jerzak describes how his team at Bellin Health Ashwaubenon decided to categorize and delegate in-basked subfolders by message type (syptom-based calls, requests for refill, appointments, etc.). Dr. Jerzak is co-author of an AMA STEPS-forward module called EHR In-Basket Restructuring for Improved Efficiency, which explains exactly how to implement this type of team-based approach.

Another popular option is to implement a technology solution that keeps your team in sync by tracking the “who, what, and where” of patients, staff, and doctors throughout the day. There are now well-designed mobile apps that tell your entire team what tasks are pending, to whom they’re assigned, where they’re scheduled, and when they’re completed. Consider mastering delegation with an app designed specifically to help clinical teams increase productivity.

5. Review your progress

“What gets measured gets managed” –  Peter Drucker

Time is our most valuable resource. Like anything, the more we keep an eye on it, the more awareness we gain about the patterns that make us successful.

The only way to measure your progress is to track it. How many hours do you spend on paperwork and administrative tasks each week? What would it take to reduce that number?

Whether you use a simple productivity app or a daily planner, begin taking brief nots about what you’re doing and not doing now. Are you completing your daily to-do list? Do you often take charts home at night? Do you regularly finish yesterday’s charts today?

These productivity tips for doctors will take you a long way towards completing administrative work more efficiently.

Begin a daily practice of writing down your top administrative priorities and tracking whether you get them done. If you’re consistently not meeting your target, assess what could change and try out a new system. Doctors spending 10 to 20 hours a week on paperwork don’t have the time to not have a plan.

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