Novel method of measuring the mental workload of anaesthetists during clinical practice

Br J Anaesth. 2010 Dec;105(6):767-71. doi: 10.1093/bja/aeq240. Epub 2010 Sep 15.


Background: Cognitive overload has been recognized as a significant cause of error in industries such as aviation and measuring mental workload has become a key method of improving safety. The aim of this study was to pilot the use of a new method of measuring mental workload in the operating theatre using a previously published methodology.

Methods: The mental workload of the anaesthetists was assessed by measuring their response times to a wireless vibrotactile device and the NASA TLX subjective workload score during routine surgical procedures. Primary task workload was inferred from the phase of anaesthesia.

Results: Significantly increased response time was associated with the induction phase of anaesthesia compared with maintenance/emergence, non-consultant grade, and during more complex cases. Increased response was also associated with self-reported mental load, physical load, and frustration. These findings are consistent with periods of increased mental workload and with the findings of other studies using similar techniques.

Conclusions: These findings confirm the importance of mental workload to the performance of anaesthetists and suggest that increased mental workload is likely to be a common problem in clinical practice. Although further studies are required, the method described may be useful for the measurement of the mental workload of anaesthetists.

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesiology / standards*
  • Clinical Competence
  • Humans
  • Medical Errors / prevention & control*
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / psychology*
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / standards
  • Physical Stimulation / methods
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Vibration
  • Wales
  • Workload*