Tracking workload in the emergency department

Hum Factors. Fall 2006;48(3):526-39. doi: 10.1518/001872006778606903.


Objective: The primary objective of this study was to create a methodology for measuring transient levels of physician workload in a live emergency department (ED) environment.

Background: Characterizing, defining, and measuring aspects of this interrupt-driven work environment represent the preliminary steps in addressing impending issues concerning ED overcrowding, efficiency, and patient and provider safety.

Methods: A time-motion task analysis was conducted. Twenty emergency medicine (EM) physicians were observed for 180-min intervals in an ED of an academic medical center. Near continuous workload measures were developed and used to track changing workload levels in time. These measures were taken from subjective, objective, and physiological perspectives. The NASA-Task Load Index was administered to each physician after observational sessions to measure subjective workload. Physiological measurements were taken throughout the duration of the observation to measure stress response. Additional information concerning physicians' patient quantity and patient complexity was extracted from the ED information system.

Results: Graphical workload profiles were created by combining observational and subjective data with system state data. Methodologies behind the creation of workload profiles are discussed, the workload profiles are compared, and quantitative and qualitative analyses are conducted.

Conclusion: Using human factors methods to measure workload in a setting such as the ED proves to be challenging but has relevant application in improving the efficiency and safety of EM.

Application: Techniques implemented in this research are applicable in managing ED staff and real-time monitoring of physician workload.

MeSH terms

  • Emergency Service, Hospital*
  • Humans
  • Observation
  • Physicians
  • Task Performance and Analysis*
  • Tennessee
  • Workload*