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Can you really multitask in the ED

October 3, 2016

Short Attention Span Summary

Walk and chew gum
Can you multitask?  This is a fascinating article, worth reading, that suggests we may not be as good at multitasking as we think.  We can only truly multitask when we’re doing a completely automatic behavior, like walking and chewing gum.  What we call multitasking is, in fact, task switching, which may lead to errors.

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Be cognizant of the fact that you can’t actually multitask.  Task-switching may cause errors.  Be vigilant when interrupted and focus on the previous task as soon as possible.  Also, try to bring as many tasks to completion as possible in the moment before moving to others.  Now, stop reading this while you’re trying to cross the road!  LITFL covered this.

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Ann Emerg Med. 2016 Aug;68(2):189-95. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2015.10.003. Epub 2015 Nov 14.

Can You Multitask? Evidence and Limitations of Task Switching and Multitasking in Emergency Medicine.

Skaugset LM1, Farrell S2, Carney M3, Wolff M3, Santen SA3, Perry M3, Cico SJ4.

Author information:

1Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. Electronic address: skaugset@med.umich.edu.

2Department of Emergency Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.

3Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.

4Department of Emergency Medicine, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, IN.


Emergency physicians work in a fast-paced environment that is characterized by frequent interruptions and the expectation that they will perform multiple tasks efficiently and without error while maintaining oversight of the entire emergency department. However, there is a lack of definition and understanding of the behaviors that constitute effective task switching and multitasking, as well as how to improve these skills. This article reviews the literature on task switching and multitasking in a variety of disciplines-including cognitive science, human factors engineering, business, and medicine-to define and describe the successful performance of task switching and multitasking in emergency medicine. Multitasking, defined as the performance of two tasks simultaneously, is not possible except when behaviors become completely automatic; instead, physicians rapidly switch between small tasks. This task switching causes disruption in the primary task and may contribute to error. A framework is described to enhance the understanding and practice of these behaviors.

Copyright © 2015 American College of Emergency Physicians. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


PMID: 26585046 [PubMed – in process]

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