While the innovation of such things as cell phones, iPads, social networking sites, and the Internet can often be a boon when it comes to gaining or sharing information on the go, they also can be a distraction to health care professionals.

A recent New York Times report highlighted this issue, which they term “distracted doctoring.” According to the report, clinicians can sometimes be focused on using their smart phones and tablet computers for personal things, such as social networking, checking news of airfare prices, etc, and not for the valid purpose of having immediate access to drug information, case studies and patient data. While proper use of the devices can actually reduce medical errors, using them for personal reasons can lead to errors.

A recent study of medical technicians, published in Perfusion, illuminates this problem. The survey included 439 medical technicians who perform cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB). More than 55% of those surveyed admitted to using a cell phone while performing CPB, as well as a shocking 49% who reported sending text messages during CPB.

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For those who had smart phone features, 21% admitted to checking email, 15% used the internet, and 3% posted on social networking sites during CPB. This was despite the fact that safety concerns were expressed by more than 78% of the survey participants who stated that they believe that cell phones can introduce a potentially significant safety risk to patients.

The Times cites a case where a patient was left partially paralyzed after a surgery during which a distracted neurosurgeon used a wireless headset to make at least 10 personal calls to friends and business associates. This case has since been settled prior to a lawsuit.

Some hospitals are trying to address this issue by instituting new policies restricting the use of cell phones and other devices. After several complaints of doctors or nurses using smart phones to check or send e-mails while they were part of a team intubating patients prior to surgery, the Oregon Health and University hospitals established a policy making operating rooms “quiet zones” focused on patient care. A nurse was later reprimanded for checking airline prices using an operating room computer during a spinal operation.

Younger clinicians are more apt to use these devices, and so medical schools are starting to teach students the importance of using technology for patient-related information, but remaining focused on patients, rather than being distracted by the technology.