Distractions and interruptions are everywhere in today’s world, made possible by the advent of communication technologies and a faster pace of life where one has to absorb a lot of information in a shorter amount of time.

Everyone experiences distractions on a daily basis, and the healthcare sector is no exception, despite the healthcare professional’s best efforts to stay focused. However, with the lives of the patients at stake, any distraction can prove to be deadly. Distractions, in this context, have become a threat.

Common distractions in healthcare

In the healthcare environment, distractions occur more often than what one might expect. One study has found that pharmacists, technicians and nurses get distracted about 15 times per hour. Another noted that different clinical environments are likely to experience different levels of distractions and the subsequent errors — the emergency departments and operating rooms are among those with the higher risk of making errors due to distraction.

The common types of distractions are phone calls, colleagues, families and patients. With the technology and processes available in the healthcare environment, distractions are unavoidable — these tools, such as mobile phones, intercom and alarms are meant to get the healthcare worker’s attention, and that is exactly what they do by distracting the healthcare worker from their current task or preoccupation. They are also self-initiated distractions, such as being preoccupied with family matters and social media.

The consequences of distraction

There are many examples where distractions have led to errors at work. At an Australian hospital, researchers found that every interruption during the dispensing of medication and administration lead to an increase of 12.7% in the risk of medication errors.

Distractions and interruptions were also found to have led to major surgical errors made by surgical residents in a simulated environment. Other negative consequences of distractions and interruptions include treatments being delayed, or the healthcare professional losing focus or concentration.

Cross-monitoring to reduce distractions

If distractions and interruptions are inevitable, healthcare professionals can only learn to manage them. One way of helping to avoid distractions happening at work is through cross-monitoring, where the members of the healthcare team will look out for each other and in this context, avoid distractions from becoming a threat.

For example, if a healthcare worker noticed their colleague being distracted or if distractions are happening, they should speak out and remind their co-workers to focus on the task at hand. All members of the healthcare team are responsible for making sure that everyone is focused on the work at hand to minimise the risk of errors and ensuring a successful outcome for patients.

Visual aids to stop distractions

There are also other ways for healthcare professionals to manage distractions. Visual cues have been suggested as one of the ways to stop healthcare professionals from getting distracted at work, such as designating an area from the usual workstations to be used as a focus zone, and putting out appropriate signage around the focus zone.

Setting up a No Interruption Zone and Do Not Disturb approach, for one, can benefit healthcare workers in charge of administering medication by reducing the possibility of distractions. Healthcare workers should also figure out the right time for necessary interruptions, and some other suggestions to stay focused are to have the right staff wear a disposable bib, or flashing light on their arm. These signals will keep the staff focus on their job at hand.

Distractions and interruptions are part of the daily routine in the healthcare professional’s work. Sometimes, they are even crucial, as a phone call or new information reaching the healthcare professional may just save a life. However, distractions must be properly managed to ensure that healthcare professionals stay focused and reduce the chances of medical errors due to distractions. MIMS

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