Tackling Task Saturation

Task saturation is the phenomenon whereby one’s brain becomes overloaded with significant information or stimuli and begins to fail itself. Task saturation often happens to a person when there is a crisis or when they are multitasking or when there is more to do in a given amount of time than is possible. Sounds like healthcare to me.

Pilots and nuclear reactor operators have developed methods and tools for overcoming task saturation. The most prominent are: 1) checklists, 2) mutual support, 3) crosschecks, and 4) huddles. Over the years, I’ve seen these things work in healthcare, but I’ve not seen them used as often as they could.  Crosschecks include double checks with colleagues, and making sure that all key indicators that will allow for effective sensemaking and situational awareness are being monitored.

Checklists exist in healthcare, but not often for crises or when the system is overwhelmed. Mutual support exists, but it’s often not there at times when it’s needed the most. Crosschecks are also used, such as in structured code situations, but they aren’t used enough. Huddles are increasingly being used, but often the time when they aren’t is when task saturation or a crisis is occurring. No one wants to take the time out to do it.

EMRs can be used to provide checklists, reminders and crosschecks. Working in teams and having huddles can provide mutual support. Having the collective discipline to stick to these principles when they are most needed is critical. Having “practiced” as a team with “learning” (debriefing) as part of the process is helpful.

The best medicine for task saturation, of course, is to avoid it from happening in the first place. Nevertheless, it happens enough in healthcare that it would be best to be prepared. How does one avoid task saturation? There have been examples where variability has been reduced despite the notion that variability in demand and volumes can’t be controlled in health care. Surge plans, flexible staffing, flexible roles, and early warning systems are all examples of preventing task saturation.