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.