Multitasking—a medical and mental hazard


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

During a recent check-up, my doctor snuck a look at her phone a couple times. I don’t think it had anything to do with my health or care, so it was mildly annoying—but I didn’t say anything. After reading a report about a man who almost died because of a doctor’s “multitasking mishap,” next time I’ll speak up.

In a case report for the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Dr. John Halamka, the chief information officer at Harvard Medical School, described the so-called mishap, which happened to a 56-year-old man with dementia who was admitted to the hospital to have a feeding tube placed in his stomach.

One of the man’s doctors increased the dose of the blood-thinner warfarin the man was taking. Warfarin helps prevent clots from forming in the bloodstream. The next day, the doctor decided to evaluate whether the man needed warfarin at all, and asked a resident (junior doctor) to temporarily stop the order for daily warfarin.

Using her cellphone, the resident began to make the change via a computerized order entry system. Part way through, she received a text message from a friend about a party. She responded to the text, but forgot to go back and complete the medication order canceling warfarin. As a result, the man kept getting a high dose of warfarin. His blood became so “thin” that, two days later, blood was spontaneously filling the sac around his heart, squeezing it so it couldn’t pump properly. He needed open-heart surgery to drain the blood and save his life.

The hazards of multitasking

Many people take pride in how well they multitask. But new research suggests some big downsides to it.

I spoke with Dr. Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore, authors of Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, a new book from Harvard Health Publishing. They said that multitasking increases the chances of making mistakes and missing important information and cues. Multitaskers are also less likely to retain information in working memory, which can hinder problem solving and creativity.

Instead of trying to do several things at once—and often none of them well—Hammerness and Moore suggest what they call set shifting. This means consciously and completely shifting your attention from one task to the next, and focusing on the task at hand. Giving your full attention to what you are doing will help you do it better, with more creativity and fewer mistakes or missed connections. Set shifting is a sign of brain fitness and agility, say the authors.

(To learn more about Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, visit the Harvard Health Publishing website.)

Time to focus

Doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals are busy folks. It’s understandable that they resort to multitasking. But it doesn’t guarantee the best medical care. Dr. Halamka, who has helped pioneer the use of electronic medical records and doctors’ use of handheld devices, writes that hospitals and other health-care settings need to help doctors and other providers cope with the distractions that come with the use of new technologies.

We can all help, too. Doctors may need a little assistance learning, or remembering, how to focus. So next time mine is doing several things at once, I’ll speak and up and ask him or her to do just one thing—be my doctor.


  1. kaavya

    Everything will be done seriously but at the time of love no mental. Sorry my english is not good. Enjoy your life without everyone. No one is with you when you are in problem. It’s a real truth that every indian believes.As well feel that guy who has no mother and father.But he/she has strong capacity to fight(mental). Because from the age of children to adult .They feel each and every thing.God helps but where when love fails or when two person fight for ach other.

    Kaavya + Alisha

  2. board games

    I agree with what Victori Ramo said, “Organize your mind, organize your life” everything should be done in the right time and at the right place.

  3. Barbara Ninan

    The post on the dangers of multitasking was great. The hospital I am affiliated with is trying to implement a distraction free area for nurses to prepare medications. Even though I know this is a good idea, it is always hard to implement change. This post brought home the potential seriousness of multitasking when one of the tasks could have life or death complications. In our culture, multitasking has become the norm and is often expected. I am so glad to have learned the new term, set shifting. I have learned to multitask quite well. Now I need to backtrack and learn to focus completely on the task at hand. Thank you so much for this insight.

  4. Victori Ramo

    Don’t miss “Organize your mind, organize your life”.

  5. Jeffrey

    Very interesting. Cell phones do everything nowadays though. Can you believe they even have free cell own charging stations at some restaurants/bars?

  6. Ayush Gupta

    haha Many people take pride in how well they
    multitask but truth is something different.

  7. Carlo @ MMA Acupuncture

    Hi Dr. Duffin, that is a lot to handle on your plate, much-o respect to you!

    Personally I’ve been trying to cut down my use of electronic/social media and have been doing a lot of tai chi and meditation to help with my focus.

  8. Felicia

    This points out what business has been worried about for a while, the distractions of personal and business communications on the same device. What needs to be highlighted in my honest humble professional opinion, is the need for professionals to be able to focus on their task without interruptions of a business nature as well. That means no other managers or coworkers bringing you 5 more things that are ALL priority or “stat” and the ability to manage ones workflow according to what can be done well in that time. This economy means those who are employed are being pushed to do the job of 3-5 people and that will not produce quality output or a quality country. Balance. In the human ability to multitask I will say, particularly in Healthcare, it is important to keep alert and pick up on small cues as second nature. Notice when something is “off” and needs tending to , a symptom of something else, when seemingly unrelated things are interconnected (the body is whole) and when paperwork issues (staff) you could roll to someone else have an easy fix if you take ownership to find out what the holdup is, and the patient is relieved, as well as your employer’s (practice, pharmacy etc. ) paycheck and your own ensured.

  9. Dr Duffin

    Most medics don’t chose voluntarily to mutitask so much, I frequently find myself in coronary care with two telephones, a pager, mobile phone, nurses and a junior doctor all demanding simultaneous attention. When I dare say NO and deal with one issue at a time and prioritise my work I am deemed unhelpful!!!!!

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