Fast may not be efficient: the potential of slow medicine

You’re likely familiar with the fast-paced demands of life in the digital age. Access to instant information and communication has increased the expectation that we’re all plugged in all the time. How do we manage this constant pressure to stay connected? Enter: multi-tasking. We text while we’re talking to someone else, surf the internet while we’re eating breakfast, and email at all hours of the day and night. It may at times feel like multitasking is an important adaptive skill for operating in this new world. There is so much information and so little time!

Here’s the thing: people who perceive themselves as being “good” multitaskers are significantly worse at it.[1] A recent study exploring perceived multitasking ability and performance found that the two were inversely correlated. The research found that people who thought they were good at multitasking had worse impulse control, making them less able to avoid distractions thrown their way. The question is, what effect is the pressure to juggle many tasks at once having on our lives?

Let’s look to healthcare as an example. A researcher in Australia has explored the challenges of interruptions and multitasking in healthcare settings. In hospitals, the interruptions are endless. Pages, texts, phone calls, emails. To manage the flood of communication and information, many healthcare workers feel the need to multitask. The researcher questions how these interruptions affect healthcare delivery and outcomes, and the findings weren’t pretty. She suggests that interruptions are associated with increases in medical errors and poorer clinical outcomes.[2]

It makes sense. A person only has so much attention in each moment. The more we try to cram in to each second of each day in the name of productivity, the more likely we are to make mistakes. While there are cases where it’s appropriate, it’s probably a good idea to investigate the real impacts of multitasking on healthcare delivery.

You see, multitasking uses many different parts of the brain at once. This tends to lead to decision-making fatigue down the line. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and multi-tasking antagonist, suggests that a multitasking brain tires more quickly than a single-tasking brain. “Your will,” he says, “is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.” And when that muscle tires out, our ability to do high-quality work diminishes, and we become more susceptible to distractions and temptations.

Some medical settings boast great achievements in volume, attending to scores of patients and coordinating numerous healthcare professionals in various roles. On the surface, this seems good. But considering what we’ve learned about multitasking, it may not be as good as it seems. What if healthcare could be delivered differently? A little slower, perhaps?

Some people have already figured out the value of slowing down. Proponents of the slow food movement celebrate slowness for what slowness inherently allows: connection, quality, enjoyment, and sustainability. If healthcare providers can take the slow track and take time with patients, as many naturopathic doctors do, what improvements might we see in healthcare? Connection, attention to detail, quality of care, and enjoyable, sustainable treatment plans?

Looking for a different way to work with your doctor? Set up an appointment today to learn how a longer visit can deliver a different kind of healthcare.

[1] Sanbonmatsu DM, Strayer DL, Medeiros-ward N, Watson JM. Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(1):e54402.

[2] Westbrook JI. Interruptions and multi-tasking: moving the research agenda in new directions. BMJ Qual Saf. 2014;23(11):877-9.

Katy Morrison, ND, LAc