Interruptions Increase Risk of Emergency Room Doctor Errors: Study

A new study conducted in Australia indicates that frequent interruptions for doctors can lead to an increased risk of medical mistakes, which could endanger patients. 

The study, published last month in the British Medical Journal’s Quality and Safety in Health Care publication, found that doctors in Australia were interrupted more than six times an hour while trying to perform their duties. Almost 20% of the time, the doctor failed to return to the task that was interrupted, and they sometimes took shortcuts that could endanger patients to make up for lost time.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney, who performed an observational time and motion study in the emergency department of a 400-bed teaching hospital, watching 40 doctors for a total of nearly 211 hours.

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Researchers found that the doctors were interrupted 6.6 times per hour, and during 11% of all their tasks. The observations found that doctors took less time on a task that was interrupted than they did on the same task when it was uninterrupted, leading researchers to conclude that they were taking shortcuts and truncating those tasks to make up for the lost time caused by the interruption. In 18.5% of the interruptions, the doctors lost track and never returned to the task they were performing.

“It appears that in busy interrupt-driven clinical environments, clinicians reduce the time they spend on clinical tasks if they experience interruptions, and may delay or fail to return to a significant portion of interrupted tasks,” the scientists concluded. “Task shortening may occur because interrupted tasks are truncated to ‘catch up’ for lost time, which may have significant implications for patient safety.”

The results follow a similar study on the risk of problems from nurse interruptions published in late April in the Archives of Internal Medicine. That study, also conducted by Australian researchers, found that nurses were more prone to make medical mistakes and prescription errors when interrupted.

Researchers found that each time a nurse was interrupted; it increased the chances of the nurse making a mistake by more than 12%.

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