While distraction has always existed, the advance of technology into so many aspects of our lives brings cause for concern. While much of the research into distraction looks at its effect on drivers, some studies have highlighted the problem of distraction among medical staff in hospitals.
As with driving, technology in hospitals can bring massive safety benefits. Yet in both cases, its increasing prevalence can also serve as a fatal distraction. Doctors, like drivers, need to be fully focused on the task at hand.
Few would argue for a cell phone ban altogether in hospitals
A cell phone may be the only way a dying loved one has to say their last goodbyes to a distant relative. They can also help staff gain immediate access to vital information about a patient from family members who are not present or from the patient’s local surgery. They can even allow a surgeon to be guided through a difficult procedure by a more experienced colleague on the other side of the world.
Yet there is no disputing that medical staff can get distracted by the rings and beeps of phones, and the conversations people have on them. It’s not just the doctors and nurses that can be distracted either. Reports have shown that the distraction of office staff is also a problem. Making an error when entering data onto a medical record could lead to serious problems down the line, for instance.
Multitasking is a Myth
The human brain is not able to simultaneously focus on two tasks. Rather, it switches back and forth between tasks so quickly that it seems as if parallel processing is occurring; in reality, it is actually rapid sequential processes. After a distraction, there is a certain amount of time required for the doctor to reorient and refocus on the task that was disrupted. This is known as “reset time.” Surgeons need to reorient themselves to the operative field if there is a pause during the surgery, before restarting. When discussing care with a patient, interruptions not only fracture the patient physician interaction, but also interrupt the critical thinking required when formulating a differential diagnosis. So, repeated distractions, whether by cell phones calls or staff, can have negative effects on care by increasing errors and the time required to provide patient care.
Dealing with distraction cannot be left to staff alone
Technology used correctly can save lives, but there must be controls. Hospital authorities need to decide on and implement policies that reduce the chances that staff are distracted. They also need to accept that distraction will occur and have systems in place that catch errors due to distraction BEFORE they result in patient harm.