Thursday, September 06, 2007
The truth about 'no cell zones'
Are you one of those people who ignore the signs in hospitals telling you to turn off your cell phone? You're not alone. As I walk through my hospital, I see lots of people - patients and doctors alike talking on their phones, seemingly oblivious to any dangers they might be causing. In fact, if you asked most of these people, they would probably say their personal phone is unlikely to cause any sort of problem with patient care. Turns out they are wrong and the consequences could be serious.
A new Dutch study, published in the journal Critical Care, concluded that we should keep all cell phones, Blackberries and anything that transmits data back and forth off, and at a minimum of three feet away from any medical equipment. That's right. It doesn't matter if you are talking on it or not, simply having it on could cause a problem. The culprit is electromagnetic interference which, when simulated in the study, caused some pretty bizarre and life threatening problems.
The researchers found interference with a variety of machines, including one, a mechanical ventilator or breathing machine, which switched off and on. In other situations, a pacemaker didn't detect an EKG signal and an infusion pump stopped. Of course, in the study, no patients were being treated, but the implications were clear.
The worst offenders seem to be devices that are GPRS based or use WiFi and get on the internet. Previous studies, such as one from the Mayo Clinic, found no interference with normal phones and normal usage. As things stand right now, there are no national guidelines on cell phone usage in hospitals. My hospital, for example, allows no usage, whereas other places may be more liberal. A good rule of thumb, though, is to probably turn off your phone entirely when in intensive care units, emergency rooms and near operating room suites.
I think most people will hear this story and be more diligent about obeying the signs in hospitals. I am curious, though, about a couple of other related issues. What do you think about the use of cell phones on airplanes? Real problem or hype? And, also do any of you worry about a relationship between cell phone usage and brain tumors?
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