Slowing down to stay out of trouble in the operating room: remaining attentive in automaticity

Acad Med. 2010 Oct;85(10):1571-7. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181f073dd.


Purpose: Automaticity is integral to expert performance, but experts must be able to transition from an automatic mode into a more effortful state when required. In this study, the authors identified and characterized the manifestations of the phenomenon of "slowing down when you should" to stay out of trouble in operative practice.

Method: The authors interviewed 28 surgeons (60-minute, semistructured format) from various specialties at four academic medical centers and observed 5 hepatopancreatobiliary surgeons in the operating room (29 cases, 147 hours) during 2007-2009. Using a grounded theory qualitative methodology, they conducted a thematic analysis of transcripts and field notes in an iterative manner. Data collection continued until saturation. They adopted a reflexive approach throughout.

Results: Surgeons described and the authors observed four phenomenological manifestations of the transition to a more effortful state. In the most extreme manifestation, "stopping," surgeons actually stopped the procedure, whereas in the most subtle manifestation, "fine-tuning," surgeons were able to continue the procedure and focus on minor events simultaneously. A separate phenomenon of "drifting" represented surgeons' failure to transition out of the automatic mode when appropriate, resulting in surgical errors or near misses.

Conclusions: The manifestations of the slowing down phenomenon represent acts of cognitive refocusing during the potentially more-critical moments of operative practice. Further, the authors challenge the conception of automaticity as effortless, arguing that automatic behavior can be attentive (fine-tuning) as well as inattentive (drifting).

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Academic Medical Centers
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Biliary Tract Diseases / surgery
  • Clinical Competence*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Judgment*
  • Liver Diseases / surgery
  • Medical Errors / prevention & control*
  • Ontario
  • Problem Solving*
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / psychology*