One to One



Assessment  Reading

The Computer in the consultation

(Rob Butcher 23/4/01)

This was Rob Butcher’s presentation to the 14th cascade day on 3.5.01

It was thought provoking, and gave us some good ideas about how to teach this issue in the consultation to learners. A straw poll showed that we love/like/hate using computers in the consultation in equal numbers!  JD 27.5.01 

Computers in the consultation.  Do you love them or loathe them? . Are they a curse or a blessing? (Alendahl  1995) 

I was prompted to volunteer to do this talk for several reasons:

 1)     The perception in the media about GPs and their computers. “He spends all his time looking at the computer”.

2)     A recent patient satisfaction survey (in our practice), one comment from one patient, “felt the computer was taking over”.

3)     A perceived tension between  medical informatiticians, and communication skills teachers.

4)     How to help registrars get over those awful moments (or minutes) of fumbling to issue a prescription etc


What does the Calgary Cambridge Guide (Kurtz et al 1998)  have say about computers and their use? .  The only references  I could find were, ”looking at medical records and computers during the consultation can affect learners non verbal communication (p133), and (skill 25) “use of notes: if reads, writes notes or uses computer,  does in a manner that does not interfere with dialogue or rapport” (p24)

 What do Patients think?  I found a useful paper (Ridsdale 1994) which found that patients had experienced the use of computers in lots of settings:


At home


At work


In shops


In banks


In hospital


In school     There are, of course many more

2)They perceived that there were advantages to using computers:


 As an efficient tool


To cross-reference medication


To save doctors time


To help keep the doctor up-to-date


And they were better than written notes


Patients thought there were potential disadvantages:


Loss of confidentiality


Breakdown/ error/ computer theft


They were daunting and unfriendly


They would take-over the doctors job


They felt they would lose confidence in their Dr if their computer use was poor


They felt the wrong patient notes might be viewed


There was the potential for the loss of the personal touch


They felt that these could be overcome by the following



If the doctor looked up at the patient


If they spoke maintaining eye contact


If they did not seem preoccupied


Viewing the screen

All, bar one preferred to see it, wanting to see health records

There have been attempts to look at the potential benefits of the use of computers by doctors.

Sullivan (1995) felt that they may help clinician performance , but at the expense of lengthier consultations and more study  were needed. Mitchell and Sullivan (2001) felt that there was “  a descriptive feast” of the potential benefits, but “an evaluative famine” of evidence.  They felt that  computers can:


Improve practitioners performance


Improve health promotion


Improve disease management, for example a reduction in diastolic BP  in hypertension


Improve appointment scheduling

However although practitioners were suspicious of their negative impact, no adverse effect on patient satisfaction was found .

While discussing this presentation with my partners, we found two contrasting approaches : 

a)     “I’m hopeless with this”, for little old Biggleswade Ladies, though we must beware of stereotypes!

b)    For the computer literate, who will rapidly show frustration if the doctors seems inept

Where might computers fit into the guide?  I have tried to identify  some of the points where I think computer use may be helpful and where we should be more explicit about how it is used .( I make reference to specific skills in the guide –see numbers)


Initiating the session

I think that computers should be hardly used at all at this stage in the consultation, because this is the point where rapport, attentive listening, observing non-verbal communication are so important.  However I think that for the following places:


(1)   glancing at the name on the screen before the patient starts talking and


(7) checking for her reminders and recalls for the purpose of agenda-setting would be important.


Gathering information


I think if the computer is going to be used successfully in the consultation its presence should be acknowledged.


(21) Signposting that you're going to use the computer is ,I think it is polite. “ I'm just going to check a few details on the computer” providing that…

(25) it does not interfere with dialogue or rapport


Explanation and planning


This is where I think the computer can really make an impact on the consultation.


(32) gives information in chunks

Showing a hospital letter

Showing a sequence of blood results

(46) showing what you have written

(40) using visual methods , diagrams, models etc

(68) and providing printed handouts

(54) safety netting explicitly recording follow-up, explaining a review date(recall) and recording it on the computer


Things that are not in the guide:


The use of algorithms “ I might just like to ask you a set of questions the computer has worked out for me”


The use of screening prompts


Calculation of biomedical indices


Teaching the use of computer skills

It is an essential requirement that the training practice teaches general practice registrars about the use of computers.  Sadly usually after a seeing some good consultation skills, we see a  dysfunctional section on the tape.  I think that some of the skills can be taught.  I specifically try and teach the use of the computer in a skilful, helpful and unobtrusive way.  It is possible for the computer to be an important part of the consultation.

I specifically use some of the ideas about rehearsal and practice for skills acquisition. I draw analogies between keyboard skills in music and the computer, finger patterns, arpeggios etc.


Some exercises:


Position of the computer                     Flip chart

Time- map of computer use


ALENDAHL K, TIMKAT & SJÖBERG C (1995) Computerised knowledge base in primary care: A curse or a blessing for health promotion, prevention and patient quality? Medinfo ;8 part2:917-21

KURTZ S, SILVERMAN J & DRAPER J (1998) Teaching and Learning communication skills. Abingdon: Radcliffe Medical Press Ltd

MITCHELL E & SULLIVAN F (2001) A descriptive feast but an evaluative famine: systematic review of published articles on primary care computing during 1980-97. BMJ;322:279-282

RIDSDALE L & HUDD S (1994) Computers in the consultation: the patients view ;BJGP :367-369

SULLIVAN F & MITCHELL E (1995) Has general practitioner computing made a difference to patient care? A review of published reports.BMJ;311:848-52


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