Doctors should ask patients whether they text and drive

It’s time to ask patients whether they text and drive.

An important perspective piece from the New England Journal of Medicine urges doctors to include that question during preventive health exams.

The data surrounding texting and driving is grim:

Although there are many possible distractions for drivers, more than 275 million Americans own cell phones, and 81% of them talk on those phones while driving. The adverse consequences have reached epidemic proportions. Current data suggest that each year, at least 1.6 million traffic accidents (28% of all crashes) in the United States are caused by drivers talking on cell phones or texting. Talking on the phone causes many more accidents than texting, simply because millions more drivers talk than text; moreover, using a hands-free device does not make talking on the phone any safer.

The author of the piece, Amy Ship from Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, says that doctors should update traditional preventive questions to keep up with the times.  The simple question, “Do you text while you drive?”, is a way to start this important conversation.

But how can we deal with skeptical patients? Dr. Ship provides good advice when responding to patients who downplay the risk:

[Patients] ask why talking on the phone, even with a hands-free device, is more dangerous than talking to a passenger in their car. There are several reasons: first is the obvious risk associated with trying to maneuver a phone, but cognitive studies have also shown that we are unable to multitask and that neurons are diverted differently depending on whether we are talking on the phone or talking to a passenger.

When patients aren’t convinced, I ask them, “How would you feel if the surgeon removing your appendix talked on the phone — hands free, of course — while operating?” This hypothetical captures the essence of the problem — the challenge of concentrating fully on the task at hand while engaged in a phone conversation.

I’ve started to incorporate this question during my routine health exams, and it’s something all primary care doctors should consider as well.