Improving our understanding of multi-tasking in healthcare: Drawing together the cognitive psychology and healthcare literature

Heather E. Douglas*, Magdalena Z. Raban, Scott R. Walter, Johanna I. Westbrook

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Citations (Scopus)
201 Downloads (Pure)


Multi-tasking is an important skill for clinical work which has received limited research attention. Its impacts on clinical work are poorly understood. In contrast, there is substantial multi-tasking research in cognitive psychology, driver distraction, and human-computer interaction. This review synthesises evidence of the extent and impacts of multi-tasking on efficiency and task performance from health and non-healthcare literature, to compare and contrast approaches, identify implications for clinical work, and to develop an evidence-informed framework for guiding the measurement of multi-tasking in future healthcare studies. The results showed healthcare studies using direct observation have focused on descriptive studies to quantify concurrent multi-tasking and its frequency in different contexts, with limited study of impact. In comparison, non-healthcare studies have applied predominantly experimental and simulation designs, focusing on interleaved and concurrent multi-tasking, and testing theories of the mechanisms by which multi-tasking impacts task efficiency and performance. We propose a framework to guide the measurement of multi-tasking in clinical settings that draws together lessons from these siloed research efforts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-55
Number of pages11
JournalApplied Ergonomics
Issue numberPart A
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2016. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Hospital
  • Medical errors/prevention and control
  • Medical staff
  • Multi-tasking


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