Critical care physician cognitive task analysis: an exploratory study

Crit Care. 2009;13(2):R33. doi: 10.1186/cc7740. Epub 2009 Mar 5.


Introduction: For better or worse, the imposition of work-hour limitations on house-staff has imperiled continuity and/or improved decision-making. Regardless, the workflow of every physician team in every academic medical centre has been irrevocably altered. We explored the use of cognitive task analysis (CTA) techniques, most commonly used in other high-stress and time-sensitive environments, to analyse key cognitive activities in critical care medicine. The study objective was to assess the usefulness of CTA as an analytical tool in order that physician cognitive tasks may be understood and redistributed within the work-hour limited medical decision-making teams.

Methods: After approval from each Institutional Review Board, two intensive care units (ICUs) within major university teaching hospitals served as data collection sites for CTA observations and interviews of critical care providers.

Results: Five broad categories of cognitive activities were identified: pattern recognition; uncertainty management; strategic vs. tactical thinking; team coordination and maintenance of common ground; and creation and transfer of meaning through stories.

Conclusions: CTA within the framework of Naturalistic Decision Making is a useful tool to understand the critical care process of decision-making and communication. The separation of strategic and tactical thinking has implications for workflow redesign. Given the global push for work-hour limitations, such workflow redesign is occurring. Further work with CTA techniques will provide important insights toward rational, rather than random, workflow changes.

MeSH terms

  • Cognition*
  • Critical Care*
  • Decision Making
  • Hospitals, Teaching
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Task Performance and Analysis*
  • Work Schedule Tolerance