Effects of interruptions in healthcare [article]

A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association1 caught my eye. The article, A systematic review of the psychological literature on interruption and its patient safety implications, looks at various tasks and variables associated with interruptions in healthcare. The article is a meta-analysis, and we all know what that means, but it is interesting nonetheless. The authors of the article say that it’s a complex issue, but I think at the heart of the matter interruptions are simply bad. Our brains just don’t multi-task the way we’d like them to, and interruptions cause a break in concentration and therefore a break in our focus. I know it always takes me a few seconds to regain my thoughts when someone interrupts me. This is especially true when I’m performing a complex task. And wouldn’t you consider providing care to patients a complex task? I would.

A systematic review of the psychological literature on interruption and its patient safety implications
Simon Y W Li1, Farah Magrabi2, Enrico Coiera2


Objective To understand the complex effects of interruption in healthcare.

Materials and methods As interruptions have been well studied in other domains, the authors undertook a systematic review of experimental studies in psychology and human–computer interaction to identify the task types and variables influencing interruption effects.

Results 63 studies were identified from 812 articles retrieved by systematic searches. On the basis of interruption profiles for generic tasks, it was found that clinical tasks can be distinguished into three broad types: procedural, problem-solving, and decision-making. Twelve experimental variables that influence interruption effects were identified. Of these, six are the most important, based on the number of studies and because of their centrality to interruption effects, including working memory load, interruption position, similarity, modality, handling strategies, and practice effect. The variables are explained by three main theoretical frameworks: the activation-based goal memory model, prospective memory, and multiple resource theory.

Discussion This review provides a useful starting point for a more comprehensive examination of interruptions potentially leading to an improved understanding about the impact of this phenomenon on patient safety and task efficiency. The authors provide some recommendations to counter interruption effects.

Conclusion The effects of interruption are the outcome of a complex set of variables and should not be considered as uniformly predictable or bad. The task types, variables, and theories should help us better to identify which clinical tasks and contexts are most susceptible and assist in the design of information systems and processes that are resilient to interruption.

1. J Am Med Inform Assoc 2012;19:6-12 doi:10.1136/amiajnl-2010-000024

Note: Something else I found interesting was the length of time between when the article was received (Sept 7, 2010) and when it first appeared online (Sept 23, 2011). That’s more than a year boys and girls. And people wonder why relevant information is hard to come by. I have a rant about that, but I’ll save it for another time.

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