Interruptions for doctors could impact patient care

By Tom Nordlie • Published: September 16th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

When you see a doctor, you’d like her undivided attention.

Realistically, that won’t always happen.

In a busy practice, many activities could require a doctor’s attention for a moment.

It could be anything from signing paperwork to e-mailing prescriptions to taking phone calls from consulting specialists.

From a physician’s perspective, these interruptions may be necessary.

From a patient’s point of view, it can be worrisome to see your doctor’s train of thought temporarily derailed.

Now, it appears there’s some validity to those worries.

A study published recently by the journal Quality and Safety in Health Care suggests that interruptions may reduce the quality of the care patients receive.

The study focused on emergency medicine, a specialty that involves time pressure, high stakes and difficult decisions.

Researchers observed forty doctors in action for several hours apiece.

On average, the doctors were interrupted once every 10 minutes.

When researchers compared the interrupted and uninterrupted versions of the same tasks, they noticed an odd trend.

The interrupted tasks often took less time.

Why was that?

The authors said it’s likely some doctors sped up completion of their interrupted tasks, trying to compensate for lost time.

That’s where patient care might be compromised.

Imagine that your doctor plans to talk to you for five minutes at the end of your visit, but she only spends two.

The missing three minutes might have provided information you need. Or given you a chance to ask questions.

Not good.

The researchers said clinical processes should be developed that minimize interruptions.

There’s an improvement that just might get everyone’s undivided attention.