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Laptops and smartphones in the operating theatre – how does our knowledge of vigilance, multi-tasking and anaesthetist performance help us in our approach to this new distraction?

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


There has been no research performed concerning the effects of the use of laptops and smartphones in the operating theatre on anaesthetist performance, yet these devices are now in frequent use. This article explores the implications of this phenomenon. The cognitive and environmental factors that support or detract from vigilance and multi-tasking are explored and core anaesthetic literature on the nature of anaesthetic work and operating theatre distractions is reviewed. Experienced anaesthetists are skilled at multi-tasking while maintaining situational awareness, but there are limits. Noise, interruptions and emotional arousal are detrimental to the cognitive performance of anaesthetists. While limited reading during periods of low task load may not reduce vigilance, computer use introduces text-based activities that are more interactive and potentially more distracting. All anaesthetists need to be mindful of the limits to the human attention span which requires observation and limiting distractions. Trainees have less experience and less ‘attentional’ safety margin, so should avoid adding additional distractions such as discretionary use of laptops or smartphones to their operating theatre work. We provide recommendations for future research on the specific advantages and disadvantages of pervasive computing in the operative theatre.

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