Medical scribes working in three emergency departments in the Denver metro area helped to significantly reduce patient wait times as well as the amount of time ER physicians spent after their shifts completing patient charts, thereby lowering overtime costs.

That’s the finding of a nine-month randomized controlled trial funded by scribe vendor Essia Health (now owned by ScribeAmerica) and independently conducted by the University of Colorado Denver. The results were published online this week in the America Journal of Health Economics.

Specifically, the study shows that scribes reduced patient wait times on average by about 13 minutes per patient in the ERs.

“They were moving patients through much more quickly, and the more congested the emergency room was, the bigger this benefit was,” says Andrew Friedson, a healthcare economist in the Department of Economics at the University of Colorado Denver, who was the author of the article.

Also See: Use of medical scribes improves physician satisfaction, charting

Friedson’s study also reveals reductions in physician overtime utilization in the ERs that leveraged scribes. In particular, the research found that the average shift saved about 15 minutes of physician overtime.

Nonetheless, despite the savings in physician overtime, Friedson admits that scribes add operational costs to hospital budgets. “Are they always worth it? No.” As a result, he contends that only busy ERs will likely find scribes to be worth the additional costs.

“Generally, I find that scribes significantly decrease physician overtime usage, increase the number of relative value units per shift, and decrease patient wait times,” writes Friedson in the AJHE article. “The size of the benefits of scribes varies considerably based on the types of shifts worked and characteristics of the physician matched with the scribe.”

Overall, he observes that when scribes assisted doctors in the ERs, clinicians were able to do more in the time that they had with patients.

“This study confirms that scribes do indeed increase the efficiency of production in emergency rooms, and given these results, it’s likely they could have other impacts on the healthcare sector, such as allowing physicians to focus more time on higher quality diagnoses, or simply provide better bedside manner by not splitting their attention between patients and charts,” Friedson adds.

Medical scribes “certainly do produce value—there’s no question about that,” he concludes. “Typically, when we think about technology we think about computers and capital, but there’s clever ways to use labor as well given limited healthcare resources—particularly in the emergency room.”

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