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Multitasking Is a Balancing Act for Physicians

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As a physician, multitasking is an integral part of the job. Between managing multiple patients, staying updated on new medical research, handling administrative tasks, and maintaining work-life balance, physicians often find themselves in a juggling act. 

Multitasking can be both a valuable skill and a potential pitfall. On the one hand, it allows physicians to manage their workload effectively, respond to emergencies quickly, and make efficient use of their time. On the other hand, excessive multitasking can lead to stress, burnout, and even mistakes, which can compromise patient safety.

When my hospital administration held a conference on the importance of not multitasking, I had to ask who they were directing this particular topic to. It couldn't be the physicians or the nurses. What did they expect when our scope of practice involved seeing patients, answering questions, taking phone calls (emergent and non-emergent), performing surgery (taking phone calls during surgery), meetings, and administrative duties during a call day? This doesn't include my personal life that intrudes on my day. 

So what do you do as a busy medical doctor? I flippantly said to myself that when I get an emergency call during surgery for a transfer, I'll just stop what I am doing, scrub out, and take the phone call.

Unfortunately, I do not have backup at the community hospital where I practice, but it is part of a larger system. All of us are stretched thin by the remnants of the COVID-19 pandemic, the politics of the state, and the corporate politics of my hospital. We are socialized to take care of the patient first. But it seems so many factors like to intrude on our duty to the patients. We are constantly interrupted. Our attention is constantly split in several different directions. We are not given resources to handle this. Instead, we are told not to “multitask.” It’s an old story with no clear pathway. 

I’ve come up with some thoughts and suggestions for myself. I try to help younger physicians, APPs, and students use some tools to prioritize what needs to be addressed first and go from there.

Here are some key points to consider about multitasking:

1) Prioritize Patient Care: While multitasking is often necessary, patient care should always remain the priority. Each patient deserves undivided attention. A rushed or distracted physician may miss critical information, leading to potential misdiagnoses or ineffective treatment plans. That being said, sometimes you have to firmly inform outside distracting factors to please leave you and the patient alone until you are finished treating your patient, sans a life-threatening situation somewhere else.

2) Use Technology Wisely: EHRs and other health IT solutions can help manage tasks efficiently. However, over-reliance on technology can also lead to “alert fatigue” or distraction from patient interaction. It's essential to strike a balance. Also, it slows you down. I know no one wants to be left with an insurmountable amount of computer work afterward, and we do not get compensated for extra EHR time. But trying to figure out how to find the delete button and/or a drag-down menu is time consuming, frustrating, and distracting.

3) Delegate: Delegating tasks to other members of the health care team can reduce workload and stress. Nurses, medical assistants, and administrative staff can handle tasks like scheduling, paperwork, and patient follow-ups, allowing physicians to focus on clinical care. I am big on delegating. I handle what I can feasibly deal with at the time. If I am overwhelmed and it takes away from the quality of my patient care, then the rest of my tasks are delayed or delegated.

4) Time Management: Effective time management is crucial. This involves setting realistic schedules, allowing time for breaks, and ensuring there is flexibility for emergencies or unexpected tasks. I hate when the administration has a problem with “downtime” or when the office/hospital unit doesn't have an influx of patients admitted that day or week. Let us have our “downtime.” It allows the health care workers and physicians time to breathe, catch up, and educate themselves. 

5) Self-Care: We are at high risk of burnout due to intense workloads. Regular breaks, mindfulness practices, regular exercise, and adequate sleep can help us manage stress levels. Now that that's out of the way: Sleep is a unicorn. We are always trying to get some sleep, stay asleep, and get adequate sleep. Find ways of obtaining adequate sleep despite what your office, job, or family try to do to keep you away from sleep. Exercise is always encouraged, but it is difficult to arrange structured exercise or the fatigue is incredibly debilitating somedays. Walk around the office or hospital, run up and down a flight of stairs. My iWatch tells me to breathe or walk if I am in one place for too long. Of course, I ignore it when I'm in surgery. 

6) Continuous Learning: Multitasking effectively is a skill that can be improved over time. Participating in workshops or training programs focusing on time management, stress management, and effective multitasking can be beneficial. Do a podcast if needed and have it in the background while you try to catch up on the EHR.

In conclusion, I don't have easy or doable answers to multitasking. It’s an essential aspect of our life. We have been trained and socialized to do more than one thing at a time, However, we can't do it at the sacrifice of our patients, our health, or our personal life. It's important to remember that quality should not be sacrificed for quantity. We have to learn how to prioritize and delegate. We need to learn to ask for help. The conference held by my hospital administration really didn't offer me resources that were applicable to me as a physician. But it did show me that I needed to remain present with my patient at all times. That my time could be managed by me and only me.

What methods do you use to multitask efficiently? Share in the comments.

Dr. Rohana Motley White is an obstetrician/gynecologist in Orlando. She enjoys traveling, reading, and hanging out with her daughter. Dr. Motley White is a 2023–2024 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Illustration by April Brust

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