Multitasking: A Survival Tool for Wellness or Road to Destruction?

Multitasking is an unavoidable part of healthcare professionals’ lives. However, multiple reviews and case studies have linked multitasking to mishaps in care. So how do we resolve this issue?

Understanding multitasking

After almost three decades of research, the generally accepted conclusion is that humans are not capable of true concurrent multitasking. We cannot focus on several different items equally at the same time. Additionally, chronic multitasking has been linked to:

  • Significantly increased stress, which has long-term health implications (e.g., high blood pressure; heart disease) and can affect brain function in the pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus
  • Decreased job satisfaction
  • Decreased IQ

Addressing multitasking in healthcare

For most healthcare providers, a large part of multitasking in the workplace is really about managing interruptions. To effectively manage multitasking in healthcare, it is important to recognize the act of the interruption, the nature of the primary task, and “task switch” and “task stack” in order to provide a safe and effective flow while addressing all needs in order of urgency.

Multitasking should be a conscious act, managed with the appropriate skill sets; it should not be an attitude or a habit, but a learned and managed skill. To help manage multitasking:

  • Develop an “executive control” to consciously shift out of tasks as needed.
  • Use effective tools to return to a previously interrupted task, such as recall techniques (e.g., visual cues, notes) or using support staff.
  • Guard your recovery time, whether it is a few minutes in the doctor’s lounge or in the evenings after work.

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Dr. Williams is also the Children’s Chief of Plastic and Craniofacial Surgery and is a member of the Children’s Board of Trustees.