Want to avoid medical errors? Don’t interrupt the nurse

Nurses who are interrupted as they attempt to administer medications to hospitalized patients are significantly more prone to medical errors, according to a study at two major teaching hospitals in Sydney, Australia.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney observed nurses preparing and administering medications in six wards to 720 patients over 505 hours from September 2006 through March 2008. They found that each interruption increased mistakes by 12.7 percent and that the number of interruptions increased the rate of procedural failures and clinical errors.


“Error severity increased with interruption frequency,” the researchers wrote in the study published in the current issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine. The full study is available here.

The association of interruptions with errors could help explain a recent University of Pennsylvania study that found higher nurse staffing levels resulted in increased patient safety. Perhaps having more nurses on a hospital ward reduces the frequency of interruptions.