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We need guidelines on use of cell phones in hospitals

By Kizito Lubano | August 10th 2016

Doctors are increasingly relying on cell phones, tablets, and other personal communication or hand-held electronic equipment. However, policies to make sure the gizmos don't spread infection or distract them from their work are slow in coming.

The widespread use of mobile phones among medical personnel in hospitals is a controversial matter. The question is how to use the mobile phones sensibly, maximise their benefits and minimise their risks. In an emergency, surgeons can seek urgent help from their superiors and colleagues, call for an opinion from the biomedical or electrical staff in case of any mechanical or instrument failure in the middle of the surgery.

Cell phones are now commonplace, whether it be the dinner table, the kitchen, a restaurant, the gym, or even the bathroom. These factors and the heat generated by cellphones contribute to harbouring bacteria on the device at alarming levels. When we consider a cellphone's daily contact with the face, mouth, ears, and hands, the dire health risks of using germ-infested mobile devices are obvious.

Unlike our hands, which are easily sterilised using hand sanitisers, mobile phones are cumbersome to clean and we rarely make an effort to sanitise them. As a result, they carry a variety of bacteria.

Use of mobile phones by Health Care Workers (HCWs) in the operation theatre, intensive care unit and critical care unit may have serious hygiene consequences as patients in such units are more vulnerable to hospital-acquired infections.

Mobile phones have largely replaced pagers and doctors need to have some sort of access to them. But there are currently no national rules covering the use of mobile devices in hospitals, even in operating rooms. Some hospitals require doctors to consult via phone, rather than text message, to limit miscommunication.

Nurses and doctors might show a patient some lab results on an iPad, then touch the device later in the day without washing it first. They might also touch their phone before or after washing their hands between patients.

Hospital visitors can also contribute to the problem. They may have a friend or loved one in intensive care scroll through photos on a phone or tablet. When they leave the hospital, they may carry multiple-resistant staph bacteria on their touchscreen.
Patients and doctors alike should be educated by clear guidelines and advised on inpatient mobile phone etiquette, regular cleaning of phones and hand hygiene.

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