Task errors by emergency physicians are associated with interruptions, multitasking, fatigue and working memory capacity: a prospective, direct observation study

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Abstract

Background

Interruptions and multitasking have been demonstrated in experimental studies to reduce individuals’ task performance. These behaviours are frequently used by clinicians in high-workload, dynamic clinical environments, yet their effects have rarely been studied.

Objective

To assess the relative contributions of interruptions and multitasking by emergency physicians to prescribing errors.

Methods

36 emergency physicians were shadowed over 120 hours. All tasks, interruptions and instances of multitasking were recorded. Physicians’ working memory capacity (WMC) and preference for multitasking were assessed using the Operation Span Task (OSPAN) and Inventory of Polychronic Values. Following observation, physicians were asked about their sleep in the previous 24 hours. Prescribing errors were used as a measure of task performance. We performed multivariate analysis of prescribing error rates to determine associations with interruptions and multitasking, also considering physician seniority, age, psychometric measures, workload and sleep.

Results

Physicians experienced 7.9 interruptions/hour. 28 clinicians were observed prescribing 239 medication orders which contained 208 prescribing errors. While prescribing, clinicians were interrupted 9.4 times/hour. Error rates increased significantly if physicians were interrupted (rate ratio (RR) 2.82; 95% CI 1.23 to 6.49) or multitasked (RR 1.86; 95% CI 1.35 to 2.56) while prescribing. Having below-average sleep showed a >15-fold increase in clinical error rate (RR 16.44; 95% CI 4.84 to 55.81). WMC was protective against errors; for every 10-point increase on the 75-point OSPAN, a 19% decrease in prescribing errors was observed. There was no effect of polychronicity, workload, physician gender or above-average sleep on error rates.

Conclusion

Interruptions, multitasking and poor sleep were associated with significantly increased rates of prescribing errors among emergency physicians. WMC mitigated the negative influence of these factors to an extent. These results confirm experimental findings in other fields and raise questions about the acceptability of the high rates of multitasking and interruption in clinical environments.

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