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  1. Cornell, Paul PhD
  2. Riordan, Monica PhD
  3. Townsend-Gervis, Mary MSA, RN
  4. Mobley, Robin MSN, RN


Nurses are increasingly called upon to engage in critical thinking. However, current workflow inhibits this goal with frequent task switching and unpredictable demands. To assess workflow's cognitive impact, nurses were observed at 2 hospitals with different patient loads and acuity levels. Workflow on a medical/surgical and pediatric oncology unit was observed, recording tasks, tools, collaborators, and locations. Nineteen nurses were observed for a total of 85.2 hours. Tasks were short with a mean duration of 62.4 and 81.6 seconds on the 2 units. More than 50% of the recorded tasks were less than 30 seconds in length. An analysis of task sequence revealed few patterns and little pairwise repetition. Performance on specific tasks differed between the 2 units, but the character of the workflow was highly similar. The nonrepetitive flow and high amount of switching indicate nurses experience a heavy cognitive load with little uninterrupted time. This implies that nurses rarely have the conditions necessary for critical thinking.