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Do we become 'ward blind'?

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An area of interest to me at this time in my studies is the theory of change blindness, otherwise known as inattentional blindness.

Natalie Chell

It is a phenomenon where a person fails to see changes to their environment - large or small - that happen right in front of their eyes. This is somewhat surprising - surely we can notice changes to the environment we are in, right? We pride ourselves on an awareness of our surroundings but it has been proven time and again that we are missing something.

In my previous employment prior to nurse training I learnt a great deal about change blindness.

At the beginning and end of each shift we would do a check of the premises from top to bottom in order to check what we may have missed. We were asked to look at our place of work with a fresh set of eyes.

When you are working six day weeks and long hours you get used to the environment you are working in.

You know what it looks like from memory and your usual routine inside out, back to front and upside down. Furthermore you are usually working with the same individuals.

However, it always stuck with me how much we really did fail to see, from a colleague’s change in hair colour to a colour change in a room. Every now and then the workplace would undergo a mini refurbishment; tables would move, plant pots and large ornaments added. These changes could occur even whilst we were working on shift and sometimes it would be days or even weeks before any of us realised something was different.

So can we get ward blind?

If it can happen to me in a restaurant then I am sure it can in a hospital. We work long hours and at changing times each week. We work with the same colleagues, and at times the same patients, so the question I always ask myself - and the one I am asking you now - is this: are you missing something?

There are many reasons why change blindness occurs - the main one being that we are overloaded with visual information on a continuous basis. In nursing, we have multiple things to do often all at once but sometimes we are so focussed on these tasks we may not notice what is happening to our surroundings.

Additionally we have expectations and past experiences which influence our work but although experience helps guide us I believe that it is also a hindrance.

Every day - and every person - we come into contact with is different. We all understand that change is a continuous process but should we start to acknowledge it better? We may have worked with the patient yesterday but today is a new day, separate to the last, and a small change could have occurred.

If it had, do you think you would notice it?

I work permanently on a ward and I know I have become comfortable in my surroundings. At the beginning of each shift I try to remind myself of the first time I set foot on the ward and how much I needed and wanted to focus on everything I was seeing, I feel more comfortable knowing that by looking with fresh eyes I won’t get complacent, and it may help me become a better nurse.

We will always miss something, it is human nature, but if we aim to open our eyes as wide as we can, to use all our senses, see each shift differently and learn from one other we can start to make change, to prevent problems that we should have been able to see coming right at us.

Natalie Chell is a first year adult branch nursing student 


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Readers' comments (1)

  • bill whitehead

    Great 2nd article from our University of Derby 1st year student nurse. Insightful comment and good advice to herself and others not to become complacent "to prevent problems that we should have been able to see coming right at us". I look forward to the third :-)

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