How Multitasking Impacts Clinicians

by | Mar 28, 2023 | Health Tech

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You probably multitask every day. It might be responding to emails while sitting in a Zoom meeting. Scrolling through Instagram while walking to the store. Or sending a text and talking to a friend while watching TV. Multitasking has become a normal part of many people’s lives. But is multitasking as effective as we think it is? And how does multitasking impact healthcare?

Is Multitasking Effective?

We like to think that we’re really productive when we multitask, but evidence suggests that’s not true. The brain has a hard time doing two or more tasks simultaneously because of how the dorsal and ventral attention systems interact with the frontoparietal control network. These systems have limited working capacity, which limits how much information someone can take in at a time. So when we attempt to multi-task, we are essentially just switching tasks.   

Multitasking is ineffective at getting work done well and quickly. When switching between tasks, especially tasks that require active attention, people become less efficient and more likely to make mistakes. This is the case for both doing tasks concurrently and switching between tasks at the same time. In fact, one study found that only 2.5% of participants could multitask without a decline in either task. When people switch between tasks, they have to reconfigure for the new task each time. When multitasking, people switch back and forth between tasks many times, which contributes to the delay in task completion.   

Impact of Multitasking in Healthcare

If multitasking in a Zoom call is hard, imagine how difficult it is to do when caring for patients. In healthcare, that happens a lot.  One reason multitasking or task switching happens so frequently is because of the high volumes of alerts that clinicians receive. In the Veterans Affairs (VA) System, providers receive over 100 alerts per day, while other studies show emergency department physicians are interrupted once every six minutes

These interruptions can be problematic because they negatively impact clinicians and their work. In a study of ED physicians, those who did more multitasking reported higher work stress. Interruptions can also impact errors. A study of nurses found that nurses were interrupted 53.1% of the time while preparing and administering medications. Interruptions were associated with a 12.1% increase in procedural failures and a 12.7% increase in clinical errors. A similar study of emergency physicians found an increase in error rates if physicians were interrupted or multitasking while prescribing medications. 

Suggestions for Improvement

Reducing multitasking in healthcare is challenging, but there are a few suggestions for reducing the number of interruptions. One suggestion is to have IT help reduce the number of non-helpful alerts clinicians receive, such as removing alerts that are clinically inconsequential. Another suggestion is to provide teams with asynchronous collaboration tools. Instead of interrupting another clinician with a text, email, or phone call, asynchronous tools allow clinicians to leave notes and information in one spot that other clinicians on the care team can go and look at on their own schedule. 

What are your experiences with multitasking in healthcare? How would you reduce interruptions or alerts for clinicians?