Clinical Researcher—March 2018 (Volume 32, Issue 3)
Paula Smailes, RN, MSN, CCRC, CCRP
Are you distracted?
I am. Almost all the time. On examination, it seems the biggest reason is that personally and professionally, technology is now too convenient. It’s mobile—I take it anywhere and everywhere, and it feels as if I am never escaping it. The work keeps coming and a lot of people expect an immediate response, because it is assumed I have the technology with me at all times to do so.
It goes without question that technology has streamlined many workflows and made our lives better, but what are the downsides to this efficiency and dependence? How about: We do work quicker so we get more work? How about technology addiction? I work in the information technology field, and I am an online instructor in a baccalaureate program. I am professionally required to be wired, but when does it all become too much?
Distraction can be a great thing. In clinical research, we might use distraction with research patients, such as when we are drawing blood from a participant or placing an IV for pharmacokinetics. So, distraction can have a positive connotation. However, when it comes to technology, distraction is on the rise in the workplace with negative consequences.
Problems with distraction at work can lead to inattention to team members, scattered focus and multitasking, lost productivity, and, perhaps worst of all, to patient harm.1 You may recall that in 2000, the Institute of Medicine came out with To Err Is Human, identifying that interruptions as a likely contributing factor to medical errors.2 Fast forward to 2013, and it was reported that increasing levels of distraction in healthcare were due to the rise of electronic devices.3
Five years later, and the situation has gotten worse. I challenge you to look around during the next work meeting or presentation you go to—how many people are distracted by technology and not paying attention? Are you one of them?
As someone who teaches technology to clinical research professionals, I always make those who attend my classes put their smartphones away before we start. I don’t want to see anyone distracted, because the truth is, when they are distracted, I’m suddenly distracted. If I see someone distracted, rather than staying focused on my teaching content, I wonder why the distracted person isn’t paying attention? Is something wrong?
To get cooperation with the “tech moratorium,” I always promise to break after an hour so my students can take a “technology break” to check in with whatever they may have missed. It’s usually successful.
Cognitive Implications of Interruptions
Let’s break down what happens when you are interrupted by technology. Your attention from your original task is diverted to the distraction. Once this shift in attention occurs, memory of the primary task begins to decay in order to “make room” for the processes required to deal with the interrupting task, and when the original task is resumed, you may not remember which part of the primary task was last completed.4
This can further lead to memory loss of that task, with some variability depending on the intensity of the task, what junction of task completion you were in, and the length of the interruption. The bottom line is that when an individual’s attention is shifted away from the original task, the likelihood of an error occurring upon return to the primary task is increased.4
To determine your technology health, consider some questions to ask yourself:
- Regardless if the technology use is personal or professional, is our distraction self-inflicted or is it an expectation?
- What is your relationship with technology?
- What boundaries have you set for how technology is impacting your life?
- If your boss sends you a text message or e-mail, what is the expectation for replying? How do you gauge urgency of the message? Is that expectation realistic?
- Are you sacrificing your personal life for a technology relationship? Which is more important?
- Are you constantly looking at or sending e-mail or text messages, be they personal or professional? Are you mainly an instigator or recipient of such communications?
Technology addiction has yet to be classified as an official mental health condition, and is largely used as an umbrella term to describe a variety of obsessive or compulsive online behaviors. What causes someone to develop this addiction isn’t very well understood, but job stress and mental illness may contribute.5
Having a Healthy Relationship
Some solutions have been identified for mitigating the issue of distraction in the workplace that can be used with respect to intruding technology. These include:
- Establishing a “No Interruption Zone”
- Ensuring a do-not-disturb approach
- Providing staff education
- Determining the best time for necessary interruptions
- Managing mobile devices
- Making system improvements
- Managing alerts, alarms, and noise6
Mindfulness of one’s behavior and how that impacts or influences others may also be considered. The clinician who is mindful of the negative impact of interruptions and distractions may react with increased attention, focus, and concentration on his or her work environment.6
In professional settings and work environments, challenge yourself to be present in the situation by removing those items that distract you. Consider what message might be sent to a research volunteer who is working with site staff distracted by mobile devices. Or, another consideration might be the distracted study volunteer texting messages and not paying attention to directions. Could that impact study outcomes?
Other interventions that may lead to less distraction include experimenting with short periods of inaccessibility; leaving your smartphone at home one day a week; setting a “not to-do” list, such as not checking e-mail during meetings; practicing tech use in moderation; and making a “tech non-proliferation” pact with a friend.7
If you want to limit the number of e-mails you get, don’t send them. Rather than hit reply, make a phone call instead. You will likely find that a conversation will settle what would have otherwise been 10 or more e-mails.
Also remember that it’s very important to have a work/life balance. Save work e-mails for work hours. Give your family members the attention they deserve when you are home. Personally, I stay very cognizant of my children. I never want them to think my technology relationship is more important than my relationship with them. If I must do computer work at home, I try to do so after they are in bed, so their moments with me are not filled with me staring at my computer or smartphone.
My concluding thought on all this is for everyone to remain cognizant of how your technology relationship is treating you. Perhaps more importantly, how do others perceive your technology relationship? Is your relationship with your smartphone abusive and smothering? If so, maybe it’s time to reconsider that relationship.
- DeMers J. 2017. Are you constantly distracted by technology? Here’s what to do. Entrepreneur. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/286963
- Institute of Medicine. 2000. To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
- Papadakos PJ. 2013. The rise of electronic distraction in health care is addiction to devices contributing. J Anesthe Clin Res. https://www.omicsonline.org/the-rise-of-electronic-distraction-in-health-care-is-addiction-to-devices-contributing-2155-6148.1000e112.php?aid=11833
- Rivera AJ, Karsh B-T. 2010. Interruptions and distractions in healthcare: review and reappraisal. Qual Saf Health Care. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3007093/
- com. Technology Addiction 101. https://www.addiction.com/addiction-a-to-z/technology-addiction/technology-addiction-101/
- Beyea S. 2014. Interruptions and distractions in health care: improved safety with mindfulness. Patient Safety Network (PSNet)/Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality/U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://psnet.ahrq.gov/perspectives/perspective/152/interruptions-and-distractions-in-health-care-improved-safety-with-mindfulness
- Soong J. 2008. When technology addiction takes over your life. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/features/when-technology-addiction-takes-over-your-life#1
Paula Smailes, RN, MSN, CCRC, CCRP, (email@example.com) is a member of the ACRP Editorial Advisory Board and a senior systems consultant and principal trainer for clinical research at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. She also is a visiting professor with Chamberlain College of Nursing.