3 ways physicians can reduce staff interruptions

Female nurse looking stressed
Physicians can head off frustrations and potential errors by adjusting their workflows to better deal with interruptions. (Getty/gpointstudio)

Everybody experiences frustration when they get interrupted during an important task. For doctors, preventing interruptions could also improve patient care and potentially save lives.

A study (PDF) published in the November issue of the Annals of Emergency Medicine tracked physicians over 36 hours and found they were interrupted 457 times, primarily by other staff members.

Those interruptions caused physicians to suspend the task they were doing and begin a new task 75% of the time. Doctors delayed or rejected interruptions in only 2% of the interactions tracked.

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According to the study’s lead author, Raj Ratwani, Ph.D., from MedStar Health's National Center for Human Factors in Healthcare in Washington, D.C., cognitive science and psychology studies suggest interruptions generally cause people to commit five to 10 times more errors than they would without interruption.

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In an interview with the American Academy of Family Physicians, Ratwani says that basic fact should be enough to make doctors consider strategies to reduce the number of interruptions they encounter.

Ratwani offers some tips for dealing with interruptions at work:

  1. Don’t be afraid to say no. “If you are in the middle of prescribing a high-risk medication, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with telling the individual starting to interrupt, ‘Wait a moment while I finish what I’m doing,’” Ratwani says.
  2. Leave yourself a mental bookmark. The biggest threat posed by an interruption comes at the point when physicians revisit their original task. Ratwani recommends reaching a natural break point in your current task before engaging with an interruption and giving yourself a mental or physical cue that will allow you to pick up where you left off. For example, append a note to your computer screen to remind you exactly where you left off and what you still need to accomplish.
  3. Get to the root of common interruptions. Physicians who take the time to figure out why others interrupt them may find they can take actions to get people the information they need before they have to disrupt others to get it. Ratwani also notes that poorly implemented IT systems could be the culprit when it comes to systemic communication issues among staff.