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Focusing on the task in hand

Multitasking and medicine don't mix, but sometimes there's no way around it

Aidan Hanratty

Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2018

Take a pen. Time yourself writing the words “I am a great multitasker”, followed by the numbers from 1 to 20. It shouldn’t take you too long. Now try this: on two different lines, write the letter “I” followed by 1, then “a” followed by 2, “m” followed by 3 and so on. It won’t be nearly as easy, and it will take a lot longer. This exercise, designed by Danish training and research firm Potential Project, shows up the futility of multitasking. Despite proven studies that show how ineffective and damaging multitasking can be, more and more doctors are forced into this style of work.

In a post entitled Multitasking and Medicine Don’t Mix, Hans Duvefelt MD wrote about the difficulties in trying to fit in paperwork, research, follow-up calls and more in between personal sessions with patients. Doctors end up taking this additional work home if they can’t get it done at their practice. He compares it to air travel: “Are airplanes scheduled to be in the air all the time, with refueling and maintenance squeezed in only if they happen to land ahead of schedule?”

This constant busy-ness is prevalent in ophthalmology too, in both private and public spheres. Arthur Cummings MD, Consultant Eye Surgeon at the Wellington Eye Clinic in Dublin, lists the many tasks he needs to complete: “Between patients I am taking and making phone-calls, replying to urgent emails and other messages, meeting with different members of my team to touch base with regards a patient, a letter, a prescription, an issue with a study, a device that requires attention, someone from the adjacent hospital, and so the list continues.”

He doesn’t enjoy multitasking and believes he works best when focused on a single task, especially given the attention required in his line of work: “When people make claims about how well they can multitask, I often ask them what additional task they would like me to do while I am making the capsulorhexis with surgical instruments in their eye.” Everyone always allows him to carry on.

One important and inescapable consideration is financial. “It may seem simple enough to simply cut back on the number of patients that we see but then we cannot cover our overheads,” says Mr Cummings, who is also heavily involved in studies regarding new innovations and technology, all of which takes up valuable time. “For me personally though, being energised by the innovation or study comfortably makes up for the additional burden on my stretched personal resources.”

Clare Quigley MD, who is currently based at Sligo University Hospital, finds it impossible to avoid multitasking. That said, there is a division of labour made for the benefit of the operating surgeon: “In theatre my trainer and I split the cataract list, with one of us operating and rescrubbing for the next procedure, while the other does all the other necessary peri-procedural tasks; admitting and blocking patients, fielding queries about the theatre list, typing and signing the post-op notes, and admitting the next patients.”

It gets busier outside the operating room, however, as doctors see casualty patients while fielding calls from GPs, referring hospitals and so forth, as well as queries from other medical teams in the university hospital. “I find it helpful to schedule incoming emergency appointments while allowing for some sort of lunch or dinner break,” adds Dr Quigley.

Ultimately, it’s all about finding the time to do everything, however hard that may be. It’s all we have, so make it count.