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Mobile Technologies Pose Risk to Health Care Providers, Patients

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Mobile devices are a tremendous asset to health care providers and patients. Clinicians can use them at the patient's bedside to access electronic health records stored across the hospital system, thereby improving patient care and reduce costs. However, there is growing concern that some health care providers may use this technology inappropriately and cause injury to patients. 

Like the thousands of patients who are hurt or killed annually while using their cell phones and engaging in "distracted driving," there are some clinicians guilty of "distracted health care."

In one case, a physician using his wireless device to access the hospital's computerized order entry system never finished changing a pharmacy order for a patient's anticoagulation therapy because she was interrupted by a personal text message. The patient received the wrong anticoagulant therapy for several additional days and required an unplanned surgery.  

At another hospital, a surgeon made at least 10 personal telephone calls using a wireless headset while performing surgery. The patient was partially paralyzed after the surgery, presumably as a result of the doctor not devoting his full attention to the surgery at hand.

Surely even the most ardent supporters of technology would object to these physicians' behavior.

Distractions are nothing new to health care.  Even before the adoption of wireless technology, physicians and other health care providers were required to manage multiple patients simultaneously, handle distractions, and set and adjust priorities immediately as situations changed. They tuned out the background beeps and alarms of the myriad of equipment, communication devices, and monitors to focus on the crisis at hand. The addition of mobile devices should not substantially increase the distraction of these health care providers. 

However, the two cases discussed above are spurring many hospitals to implement or consider restrictions on mobile device usage.  Most restrictions are a complete prohibition on the use of hospital-supplied mobile devices for personal uses. Health care providers at hospitals with established policies should adhere to all restrictions, but even those who work in hospitals without policies should avoid using hospital-supplied devices for personal use so as to prevent unnecessary distractions. 

For the most part, distractions are just another factor that health care providers successfully contend with on a daily basis.  However, these cases should serve as a reminder that even a momentary lapse in the use of mobile devices can have severe consequences.  Health care providers should limit their use of new technology to enhancing patient care and avoid uses that could cause patient injuries. 

Michael L. Smith, JD, RRT is board certified in health law by The Florida Bar and practices at The Health Law Firm in Altamonte Springs, Fla.  This article is for general information only and is not a substitute for formal legal advice.


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