Medical scribes can reduce burnout among cardiologists—and they practically pay for themselves

Medical scribes can help physicians spend more time with their patients and less time filling out burdensome paperwork—and a new study in Annals of Internal Medicine shows just how quickly the move can pay for itself, especially in cardiology.

The authors calculated how long it would take for physicians from 30 different specialties, plus physician assistants and nurse practitioners, to recover the costs associated with implementing a medical scribe program. Programs were assumed to involve one full-time scribe working with one full-time health care professional (HCP) at a time.

Overall, an average of 1.34 additional new patient visits per day were needed to cover medical scribe costs. That number was the lowest for cardiology (0.89) and highest for orthopedic surgery (1.80).  

Practices could also break even by seeing an average of 2.15 more returning patients per day. Cardiology (1.65) and orthopedic surgery (2.78) were once again at the low and high end of that range.

“We found that a scribe program would likely break even or be profitable for all Medicare-billing provider types when HCPs have two additional new patient visits or three additional returning patient visits each clinic day,” wrote lead author Tyler J. Miksanek, BA, BS, of the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago, and colleagues. “For HCPs seeing an average of 20 patients per day, this represents a 10% to 15% increase in visits, which approximates the 10% to 20% average productivity increases reported by previous studies of scribe programs.”

In a prepared statement, corresponding author Neda Laiteerapong, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, explained how seeing just a few extra patients each day can make a colossal impact on patient care,.

“The idea that you have to see more patients can be really scary,” Laiteerapong said. “But the idea is that you’re actually spending that time more focused on the patient. A scribe allows doctors to focus on thinking and talking and listening, and not on the typing and clicking and ordering. I don’t know anyone who became a doctor to do those things.”

Scribes, Laiteerapong added, wouldn’t have to be in the room during every patient visit. Recording the conversation and transmitting it electronically would cover that part, Laiteerapong said, and “a scribe working in another space can still have the notes 90% done when the physician leaves the room.”

The full study is available here.