The Hawthorne effect in direct observation research with physicians and patients

Meredith A. Goodwin, Kurt C. Stange, Stephen J. Zyzanski, Benjamin F. Crabtree, Elaine A. Borawski, Susan A. Flocke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Rationale, aims, and objectives: This study examines the degree to which a “Hawthorne effect” alters outpatient-visit content. Methods: Trained research nurses directly observed 4454 visits to 138 family physicians. Multiple data sources were used to examine the Hawthorne effect including differences in medical record documentation for observed visits and the prior visit by the same patient, time use during visits on the first versus the second observation day of each physician, and report by the patient, physician, and observer of the effect of observation. Results: Visits on the first versus the second observation day were longer by an average of 1 minute (P <.001); there were time-use differences for 4 of 20 behaviour categories evaluated. No effect of the observer on the interaction was reported by 74% of patients and 55% of physicians. Most of those that reported an affect indicated it was slight. Patients with non-White race, lower-educational level, and poorer health were more likely to report being affected by the observer. Conclusions: In a study that was designed to minimize the Hawthorne effect, the presence of an observer had little effect on most patient-physician visits but appeared to at least slightly effect a subgroup of vulnerable patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1322-1328
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Hawthorne effect
  • direct observation
  • practice-based research network
  • primary care practice

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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