Skilled workers are at higher risk for mistakes when interrupted, study finds

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Highly trained workers generally work faster, but they are more likely to make mistakes after they are interrupted, a new study finds.

"Suppose a nurse is interrupted while preparing to give a dose of medication and then must remember whether he or she administered the dose," said Erik Altmann, Ph.D., psychology professor and lead investigator on the project at Michigan State University. "The more experienced nurse will remember less accurately than a less-practiced nurse, other things being equal, if the more experienced nurse performs the steps involved in administering medication more quickly."

Altmann and his team designed a computer-based procedural task for study participants. They found that as people became faster, they became more accurate overall — until they were interrupted. Then they made more errors, Altmann said.

"The faster things happen, the worse we remember them,"he explained. He said healthcare workers may benefit from training that is specific toward helping remember where they left off.

Results appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.