Emergency doctors' strategies to manage competing workload demands in an interruptive environment

an observational workflow time study

Scott R. Walter*, Magdalena Z. Raban, William T M Dunsmuir, Heather E. Douglas, Johanna I. Westbrook

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

27 Citations (Scopus)


An observational workflow time study was conducted involving doctors in the emergency department (ED) of a large Australian hospital. During 121.7 h across 58 sessions, we observed interruptive events, conceptualised as prompts, and doctors' strategies to handle those prompts (task-switching, multitasking, acknowledgement, deferral and deflection) to assess the role of multiple work system factors influencing doctors' work in the ED. Prompt rates varied vastly between work scenarios, being highest during non-verbal solo tasks. The propensity to use certain strategies also differed with task type, prompt type and location within the department, although task-switching was by far the most frequent. Communicative prompts were important in patient treatment and workload management. Clinicians appear to adjust their communication strategies in response to contextual factors in order to deliver patient care. Risk due to the interruptive nature of ED communication is potentially outweighed by the positive effects of timely information transfer and advice provision.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)454-460
Number of pages7
JournalApplied Ergonomics
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017


  • Clinical work systems
  • Emergency medicine
  • Interruption
  • Multitasking
  • Task-switching

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