Today and yesterday, The New York Times ran two front page stories about cell phones — yesterday’s focused on the road, today’s focused on cell phone uses in hospitals. In both, distracted drivers or doctors and nurses jeopardized the lives of innocent by-standers. In the first case its other drivers who are killed or injured in accidents because of distracted drivers, in the seconds it’s patients who are harmed because of distracted health care workers.
A story entitled “Ban on Cell Use By Drivers Urged,” reported that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the national agency that is responsible for traffic safety, recommended a ban on all cell phone use because of the danger of distracted drivers. Turns out 35 states have bans on texting while driving (which means that 15 allow people to text while driving) and only 9 have bans on driving while holding a phone in one’s hands. Despite the overwhelming evidence, not a single state has bans on cell phone use on the road and 41 allow people to chatter away holding a phone in their hands and driving. So what has this got to do with cell phone use in hospitals and other health care settings — the subject of the second New York Times article entitled, ” As Doctors Use More Devices, Potential for Distraction Grows?”
This article discusses the fact that more and more doctors and nurses are urged to use cell phones and other electronic devices to check on the latest developments in medicine, make sure they’re using the right dose of a medication, or search the literature for the right treatment for a malady. Problem is, they’re also using these electronic devices to check their email, shop on line, text a pal, or phone a friend or loved one. Not just when they’re on break, but during surgery, or when they’re checking on a patient. One neurosurgeon, during surgery, reportedly, made ten phone calls to friends and business associates according to an attorney representing a patient who was harmed during the surgery. This is a dangerous distraction, observors note.
While the Times story depicts this phenomenon as surprising, the juxtaposition of Wednesday’s story about texting while driving and the Thursday story about texting while doing surgery is very revealing. In a society that is still debating whether it is safe to text while driving and has not banned texting (not to mention hand held phones) on every road in the nation, why are we surprised that inappropriate use of electronic devices has invaded the professional space of the hospital?
The fact that people are so obsessed with their own need to communicate with a friend, loved one, or business associate while driving that they forget they have a moral and social obligation to focus on the road and not hurting others who share it, parellels our social amnesia in the hospital. Today, the boundary between the personal and professional, the duties of the latter and the whims of the former have been entirely blurred. So have the boundaries between one’s obligations and rights as a citizen and one’s rights as an individual– as in the obligation not to kill someone else when you get behind the wheel. People now feel that their right to self-expression (as in, “honey, don’t forget to get the milk” or to blather away about a boyfriend or the movie one saw last night) supercedes any concern for the safety of other people. The same people who are texting away on the road now populate the staff of hospitals and other health care institutions. No one, moreover, is holding them to a higher standard. The surgeon who called his friends and business associates ten times did this in front of other OR staff – circulating nurses, anesthesiologists, surgical techs etc. Where were they when this was happening? Why did no one intervene? Were they on their cell phones too? And where is hospital administration and the Joint Commission, and Congress? All texting too?
I’m all for individual rights and worker’s rights. But this has got to stop. Texting is an ever-present temptation. But as a species we’ve been tempted even before Adam and Eve. Doctors and nurses aren’t allowed to pick up the phone in a patient’s room and have a chat with their husband or wife. For years, there have been phones in the OR, but people didn’t take a time out so they could call their broker. Why do they do this cell phones and other devices?
My suggestion for the OR is one person should be designated as the one who checks things out, just like the circulating nurse is the one to find out needed information now. Only that person is allowed to use a cell phone, period. Hospitals need to enforce new rules about electronic use. By the way, if your doctor needs to check out what procedure you need or how to do it while you’re unconscious in the OR, you are in bigger trouble and at greater risk than you’d ever imagined.