Prospective memory in the ICU: the effect of visual cues on task execution in a representative simulation

Ergonomics. 2013;56(4):579-89. doi: 10.1080/00140139.2013.765604. Epub 2013 Mar 21.


Despite the potential dangers of clinical tasks being forgotten, few researchers have investigated prospective memory (PM) - the ability to remember to execute future tasks - in health-care contexts. Visual cues help people remember to execute intentions at the appropriate moment. Using an intensive care unit simulator, we investigated whether nurses' memory for future tasks improves when visual cues are present, and how nurses manage PM demands. Twenty-four nurses participated in a 40-minute scenario simulating the start of a morning shift. The scenario included eight PM tasks. The presence or absence of a visually conspicuous cue for each task was manipulated. The presence of a visual cue improved recall compared to no cue (64% vs. 50%, p = 0.03 one-tailed, η(p)(2) = 0.15). Nurses used deliberate reminders to manage their PM demands. PM in critical care might be supported by increasing the visibility of cues related to tasks.

Practitioner summary: Nurses must remember to execute multiple future tasks to ensure patient safety. We investigated the effect of visual cues on nurses' ability to remember future tasks. Experimental manipulation of cues in a representative intensive care unit simulation indicated that visual cues increase the likelihood that future tasks are executed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cues*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units*
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Mental Recall
  • Nurses* / psychology
  • Nurses* / standards
  • Photic Stimulation*
  • Staff Development / methods
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Teaching / methods