Have you ever used your mobile phone in a hospital and been given a look of disgust? Or perhaps you’re the one giving those looks? Maybe you’re neither here nor there. Whatever your views, the belief that it is dangerous to use your mobile phone in a hospital has been around for as long as the mobile phone has. We’ve similarly been lead to believe that using your mobile phone on a flight or at a petrol station is dangerous. We’re told that the signals and frequencies will cause a circuit fault and the next thing to happen will be a catastrophe!
We’ve developed a precautionary attitude to health problems in recent years, which requires proof that something isn’t dangerous, rather than proof that it is. Our main concern is whether or not there’s any legitimacy to the fear of using our mobiles in hospitals.
Originally mobile phones were banned from hospitals because they were thought to interfere with medical equipment. There’s also other suggested issues with the mobile’s presence in our hospitals, such as the problems of noise and distraction. More recently, there is less concern over mobile interference with medical equipment, which is why they are permitted in most Australian hospitals. However, Gotz Schartner, professional hacker, researcher and security expert, told Medica he shares the cautious view that they should be left out of hospitals.
“A cell phone of a smartphone can interfere with medical equipment. When you suddenly switch on strong radio waves in an intensive care unit for example, monitor systems can display false data or diagnostic systems can fail.” He feels hospitals are ill-equipped to deal with the fast growth of technology to ensure that their equipment is safe and unhindered by telecommunications devices.
Others argue that the use of mobiles in hospitals is fine with certain limitations. The Academic Medical Centre of the University of Amsterdam found that the median distance at which higher rates of EMI incidents occur falls within the “one-metre-rule” that is widely considered a safe distance from equipment. So, as long as people aren’t holding phones directly against equipment for long periods of time, it’s safe.
Contrarily, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association showcases research which found that interference of any type occurred in 0 of 75 patient care rooms, during 300 tests performed to see the effects of mobile devices on medical equipment. Researchers concluded that although mobile phone use has been prohibited in certain hospitals, due to concerns that they would interfere with medical devices, the study revealed when they are used in a normal way, no noticeable interference whatsoever occurred.
Mobile phones in our hospitals are thought to present a problem for other reasons besides equipment interference, such as the noise nuisance they bring. People are often inconsiderate in the use of their devices; talking loudly and for long a duration of time could deny patients the rest they need. However, having designated mobile-free areas to create the silent environment that some patients require can prevent this issue from arising. Encouraging people in hospitals to speak softly, and enforcing that devices be on silent are also good measures for ensuring mobiles don’t present a problem. There’s also no reason to believe that the noise created by mobile devices should be any more intrusive to patients than radios, MP3 players, TV sets, and other lapses in courtesy that happen when people operate their entertainment devices that are permitted in hospitals.
Instead of being a nuisance, mobile devices in hospitals could be an aid to the comfort of patients. Many patients can suffer isolation during hospital stays and are unable to contact their relatives and friends. Mobile phones can assist patients in contacting their loved ones and reduce their sense of loneliness. They can also update them of their condition and gain outside support and comfort.
There are also arguments that mobile phones in hospitals can decrease the effectiveness of treatment, providing an unnecessary distraction to staff and patients. However, mobile phones have actually been shown to improve effective diagnosis. Photos can be sent, or symptoms can be explained over the phone. Perfect for when a specialist is not available at the hospital or a second opinion is required quickly. Mobile phones are handy when a large number of experts are required for opinions on a single patient. For Doctors, mobile devices in hospitals would provide a more convenient means of communication, rather than pagers.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK asserted that a blanket ban on mobile phone use in hospitals was overly restrictive. Claiming the benefits of mobile telecommunications outweighed the risks. We tend to agree. Using mobiles in hospitals has the potential to improve the effective treatment of patients, and provide convenience to hospital staff, while limiting patients’ sense of isolation.
The concern of interference with medical equipment seems to be more precautionary than substantial. However, it’s important that mobile users in hospitals be considerate of their environment. Hospitals are full of patients who need rest, proper phone etiquette and hospital restrictions should ensure this is respected.