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Electronic Screens Distracting Doctors’ Attention

Update Date: Mar 05, 2013 12:42 PM EST

With more smartphones and tablets on the market, hospitals have taken a more digital approach when communicating with fellow doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. The tradition of paper and pen is dying out as research reveals that more doctors are receiving digital copies of medical test results and lab reports. Even though this shift toward digital communication may be faster and more easily accessible, a new study reports that roughly a third of primary care physicians have reported to miss certain reports due to the overabundance of information.

The survey compiled data from 2,600 primary care doctors and found that about a third of the doctors admitted to accidentally skipping over very important patient test results because they were distracted by other information on their screens. The doctors admitted that the distracting information was not necessarily more important, but rather, there was just too much to look at that they could not immediately assess which results were more important.

This discovery is alarming since a recent study also reported that most medical errors stem from the initial meeting with primary care physicians (Medical Errors Often Stem from Primary Care Physicians). If these doctors' misdiagnoses can lead to errors, even more errors may occur if these doctors look over important test results because of the distracting amount of information digital communication brings in. This study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

"The problem is that it's now so much easier to communicate than ever before. Sending messages electronically is very convenient. But it' also meant that a lot of noise is coming the way of physicians who are gatekeepers, and as the information mounts the risk is that they miss eh really important information," lead author, Dr. Hardeep Singh commented. Dr. Singh is the chief of health policy, quality, and informatics at the Michael I. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston, TX.

The researchers noted that this survey focused on new communications between doctors and other medical professionals. The traditional emails between doctors and health care providers are still considered to be very effective. The problem lies in the buildup of emails in a doctor's inbox that he/she gets bombarded with. These incoming messages can become overwhelming. The survey found that 87 percent of the doctors felt that they get too many alerts a day and 70 percent of them stated that the amount of alerts is more than they can handle. The average alerts a day is currently at 63.  Roughly 56 percent of the doctors stated that they felt that the alert notification system can cause them to miss reports, and 30 percent of the doctors said they already have missed reports due to the notification system.

The findings from the study provide insight as to how the alert systems may not be effective and suggest that some changes need to be done. Dr. Singh does admit that there is no answer to this issue, only better options that have yet to be implemented.

Dr. Singh does recommend traditional methods like color-coding and labels that may be able to help doctors prioritize. In the meantime, despite this survey, most medical institutes are against the idea of reverting back to paper. 

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