Can You Multitask? Evidence and Limitations of Task Switching and Multitasking in Emergency Medicine

Ann Emerg Med. 2016 Aug;68(2):189-95. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2015.10.003. Epub 2015 Nov 14.


Emergency physicians work in a fast-paced environment that is characterized by frequent interruptions and the expectation that they will perform multiple tasks efficiently and without error while maintaining oversight of the entire emergency department. However, there is a lack of definition and understanding of the behaviors that constitute effective task switching and multitasking, as well as how to improve these skills. This article reviews the literature on task switching and multitasking in a variety of disciplines-including cognitive science, human factors engineering, business, and medicine-to define and describe the successful performance of task switching and multitasking in emergency medicine. Multitasking, defined as the performance of two tasks simultaneously, is not possible except when behaviors become completely automatic; instead, physicians rapidly switch between small tasks. This task switching causes disruption in the primary task and may contribute to error. A framework is described to enhance the understanding and practice of these behaviors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attention*
  • Cognition
  • Emergency Medicine / organization & administration*
  • Humans
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Task Performance and Analysis*
  • Workload