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Interruptions Make Doctors Lose Track of Tasks

Distractions could have big impact on patient safety, researchers say

WEDNESDAY, May 12 (HealthDay News) -- Hospital doctors who get interrupted on the job often fail to get back to what they were doing and end up spending less time on their tasks, a new Australian study finds.

Until now, the researchers say, no one has analyzed what those interruptions actually mean for doctors on the job.

University of Sydney researchers tracked 40 doctors at a teaching hospital for a total of 210 hours. The doctors were interrupted an average of nearly seven times an hour, and they spent less time on their tasks -- such as writing prescriptions -- when they got back to them after being interrupted.

Perhaps the doctors finish their tasks quicker to make up for the time lost due to the interruption, the researchers said. But in 18.5 percent of cases, they didn't return to the tasks at hand.

"Our results support the hypothesis that the highly interruptive nature of busy clinical environments may have a negative effect on patient safety," the researchers wrote. "Task shortening may occur because interrupted tasks are truncated to 'catch up' for lost time, which may have significant implications for patient safety."

The study was published online May 13 in Quality and Safety in Health Care.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has tips for talking with your doctor.

-- Randy Dotinga

SOURCE: BMJ, news release, May 12, 2010

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