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Cognitive Load Theory and Patient Safety 

Cognitive Load Theory and Patient Safety
Chapter:
Cognitive Load Theory and Patient Safety
Author(s):

Elizabeth Harry

and John Sweller

DOI:
10.1093/med/9780199366149.003.0002
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date: 05 December 2020

Effective patient care depends on the ability to store and retrieve patient information and medical knowledge. All knowledge is either acquired from the environment or created de novo through trial and error. In either case, cues from the environment are filtered through working memory to attempt to guide action. Psychological principles such as resource theory and cognitive load theory suggest that humans have a limited amount of working memory that can be used to assimilate new information. When working memory is overloaded (i.e., cognitive overload), one’s attention is limited to fewer salient patient data pieces and one will naturally begin to ignore potentially crucial information. Cognitive overload can occur as a result of highly complex information, poorly organized information, distracting environments, or provider physiology. Attention to factors that lead to cognitive overload are critical in designing safe patient care systems.

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