July 3, 2014

By Dr. Philippe Erhard

As physicians, we love multitasking. We type notes on the computer while talking to patients. We read emails while answering the phone. We talk on the phone while doing medical reports. We continue to do several tasks at a time, day after day, in order to work faster.

Unfortunately, studies show that multitasking reduces productivity by 40%. Multitasking doesn’t work because it doesn’t exist. When we believe we are multitasking, we are in fact switching back and forth from task to task. This is because our minds are only capable of doing one task at a time. This process is fast and gives us the illusion of doing several things at once, but switching back and forth actually decreases concentration and slows thought process, especially at the end of a day when we are tired.

Decreased productivity is not the only side effect of multitasking; it leads to a new condition called Attention Deficit Trait (ADT). Overloaded with incoming messages and competing tasks, we are unable to prioritize and we start to use our brains less effectively even when we don’t multitask. We become less flexible, memory function decreases, and thinking becomes very quick but also very shallow—a dangerous combination. It even affects the quality of our relationships as we become impatient, dissatisfied with slowness, and uncomfortable with silence. Stress levels increase as dealing with multiple tasks at once makes us feel overwhelmed and drained.

This bad habit doesn’t have any benefit and we need to stop it. Here are a few suggestions.

  • First, turn off audible and visual emails alerts and check them only at specific prearranged times.
  • Don’t answer phone calls when seeing patients. Treat these the same as emails by having prearranged times for returning calls, for example, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon and at the end of the day. Make sure your receptionist knows your plan and informs the caller of the time you return phone calls and/or emails.
  • When doing medical reports, close the door and apply the simple technique used by people with ADD called the OHIO technique: Only Handle It Once. The rule is to devote our full attention to only one task until it is completed.
  • With computers and EMR, we often hear patients complaining, “He didn’t even look at me, being too preoccupied with typing notes on the computer.” By focusing on the computer while doing a history, we not only lose our concentration and miss important visual clues such as body language, but we also show total disrespect to our patient. We are treating a person, we are talking to a person, and this is where our focus needs to be.

Instead of ignoring our patient after doing our patient-focused history, we can say to the patient, “Please, excuse me, I need to type some notes. Otherwise I will forget what we discussed.” It is then time to turn to the computer, and when finished, thank the patient and continue our history/physical. We may even joke about our slow typing and our struggles with ‘this demanding machine.’

Multitasking is too often perceived as the most efficient way to work, but unfortunately, it’s ineffective, stressful, and dangerous to our mind. It also affects our relationships not only with our patients, but also with our family and friends. We need to remember this and practice single-tasking instead. Our patients and family will thank us for it, and we will be more efficient and less stressed by our work.