Administrative Work Consumes One-Sixth of U.S. Physicians’ Working Hours and Lowers Their Career Satisfaction

By Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein
International Journal of Health Services, Volume 44, Number 4 / 2014


Doctors often complain about the burden of administrative work, but few studies have quantified how much time clinicians devote to administrative tasks. We quantified the time U.S. physicians spent on administrative tasks, and its relationship to their career satisfaction, based on a nationally representative survey of 4,720 U.S. physicians working 20 or more hours per week in direct patient care. The average doctor spent 8.7 hours per week (16.6% of working hours) on administration. Psychiatrists spent the highest proportion of their time on administration (20.3%), followed by internists (17.3%) and family/general practitioners (17.3%). Pediatricians spent the least amount of time, 6.7 hours per week or 14.1 percent of professional time. Doctors in large practices, those in practices owned by a hospital, and those with financial incentives to reduce services spent more time on administration. More extensive use of electronic medical records was associated with a greater administrative burden. Doctors spending more time on administration had lower career satisfaction, even after controlling for income and other factors. Current trends in U.S. health policy—a shift to employment in large practices, the implementation of electronic medical records, and the increasing prevalence of financial risk sharing—are likely to increase doctors’ paperwork burdens and may decrease their career satisfaction.

From the Discussion

A few studies have examined the amount of time physicians spend on billing and insurance-related paperwork—a narrower definition of administrative work than we used. A 2000 California study estimated billing and insurance-related work consumed 4.9 percent of physician time. In a 2006 survey, physicians reported spending 3 hours per week interacting with private insurance plans, with primary care doctors and solo practitioners reporting slightly higher figures; 81.5 percent perceived that this work was increasing. A companion 2006 survey of office-based private practitioners in Ontario found they spent 2.2 hours per week interacting with insurers (vs. 3.4 hours in the United States when Medicare and Medicaid were included along with private insurers). Differences in the time spent on these tasks by non-physician office staff were even larger; 20.6 hours of nurse time per physician in the United States versus 2.5 hours in Canada; 53.1 hours per week of clerical time in the United States versus 15.9 hours in Canada; and 3.1 hours per week of senior administrators’ time in the United States versus 0.5 hours in Canada.

Much time and money are currently spent on medical billing and paperwork. A simpler system could realize substantial savings, freeing up more resources to expand and improve coverage.

International Journal of Health Services (click on the article for the abstract):

Full article:

PNHP Press Release:…

The health care system in the United States is unique for its profound administrative waste. This article by Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein demonstrates the intensity of the administrative burden on physicians – a burden that is correlated with lower career satisfaction.

The good news is that we could reduce that burden and improve satisfaction by adopting a single payer system such as they have in Canada. But then the bad news is that we have left the political agenda in the hands of those who are adept at buying the votes in Congress – especially the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

It doesn’t have to be this way. After all, we are a democracy, but we have to make the effort to have our voices heard.


Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State

What Is Democracy?

The essence of democratic action is the active, freely chosen participation of its citizens in the public life of their community and nation. Without this broad, sustaining participation, democracy will begin to wither and become the preserve of a small, select number of groups and organizations.

At a minimum, citizens should educate themselves about the critical issues confronting their society–if only to vote intelligently for candidates running for high office.