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U of U study: too many distractions may lead to mistakes for radiologists

In some hospitals the overnight radiologist doesn’t just read and interpret imaging scans, like MRI’s and Xrays, they are also in charge of manning the phone calls that bring in requests from other parts of the hospital.

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“They have a really, really, difficult job and it seems like we are making it harder,” said Psychology Professor Trafton Drews, “If you are the only person there overnight then you answer the phone. It’s often from the E.R. and they have some pressing need to look at a patient. So you are looking at patient X and then you are interrupted by patient Y. It’s gets very confusing.”

Recent studies show in a 12 hour overnight shift, the radiologists are interrupted by phone calls an average 72 times. In the University of Utah study, Drews only interrupted his participating doctors twice. He said they managed to make accurate assessments of the scans, but it took them longer to do it.

“After they get interrupted there is a period of time where they are trying to sort of figure out ‘What was I doing before?’ and they are looking at everything but medical images,” Drews said.

His worry goes beyond time spent. Drews said with two interruptions their study doctors accuracy didn’t drop, but what about with 100 interruptions? Or the typical 72?

“Maybe we would have found a small decrement in terms of accuracy,” Drews said.

He said he hopes to continue his research to suss out the difference in accuracy and efficacy between doctors who are interrupted by phone requests and doctors who have someone screening phone calls for them.