Multitasking in Medicine

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Multitasking in Medicine- Should You or Shouldn’t You?

Helping to put a patient in a cast In our never-ending endeavour to get more done in less time, most of us resort to multi-tasking several times during the day. All of us have at some time or the other checked emails while talking on the phone or talked on the phone while cooking or even while driving. While we may feel a huge sense of accomplishment at having achieved two tasks in the same amount of time, recent research shows that this could take a toll on our overall productivity in the long run.  This is particularly prominent if it involves complex tasks.

Researchers conducted several experiments over a period of time to study the effect on cognition or mental processes when a person tries to do more than one task at a time. These studies have shown that the human brain is not designed for doing several things at the same time. Psychologists and researchers have likened multitasking to air-traffic control or choreography. In these operations, as in many others, mental overload can result in a disaster.

Multitasking involves trying to perform two tasks simultaneously, either switching back and forth from one task to another or performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. To evaluate the costs of this kind of mental “juggling,” researchers conducted task-switching experiments to compare how long it takes for people to get everything done while ‘single tasking’ and while multitasking. They also assessed how different aspects of the tasks, such as complexity or familiarity, may affect any extra time cost of switching.

During these experiments in which their subjects switched back and forth between different tasks, all of the participants actually lost time when they moved from one task to another. As tasks got progressively more complex, the amount of time lost increased. As a result, the participants actually took a considerably longer time to juggle between more complex tasks and finish the tasks. Interestingly, the participants got up to speed faster when they switched to tasks they knew better but they lost more time when they switched to tasks that were less familiar.

What all of this means is that although switch costs may seem relatively small, sometimes as much as a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when you switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. While multitasking may seem efficient on the surface it may actually take more time in the end. More importantly, it has a higher potential for multiple errors. The same study showed that even short mental blocks created by switching between tasks can cost as much as 40% of a person’s productive time.

Understanding the hidden costs of multitasking is important in that it can help you choose strategies that boost your efficiency while you are in medical school and even after you graduate. With so much to accomplish as a medical student and then so many patients to attend to as a physician, the multitasking can seem like the best and most productive solution to getting everything done. But with the higher potential for errors, the big question is, should you?   

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