Solving distracted doctoring from smartphones and tablets


Imagine that your neurosurgeon, during surgery, was talking on his cellphone using a headset.


Well, no. A recent article in the New York Times cites a case where a patient was left paralyzed and the neurosurgeon was sued, in part, for being distracted. He made 10 personal calls during the operation.

The proliferation of portable electronic devices, smartphones, tablets, and the like, are driving the attention of health professionals away from patients.

Think distracted driving is a problem? Try distracted doctoring.

According to the Times,

… research on the subject is beginning to emerge. A peer-reviewed survey of 439 medical technicians published this year in Perfusion, a journal about cardio-pulmonary bypass surgery, found that 55 percent of technicians who monitor bypass machines acknowledged to researchers that they had talked on cellphones during heart surgery. Half said they had texted while in surgery.

About 40 percent said they believed talking on the phone during surgery to be “always an unsafe practice.” About half said the same about texting. The study’s authors concluded, “Such distractions have the potential to be disastrous.”

We’re encouraging more doctors to use “point of care” apps, which, in theory, should benefit patients. But unaccounted for is the fact that smartphones and tablets carry many other functions that are non-clinical — like Facebook, for instance:

“You walk around the hospital, and what you see is not funny,” said Dr. Peter J. Papadakos, an anesthesiologist and director of critical care at the University of Rochester Medical Center in upstate New York, who added that he had seen nurses, doctors and other staff members glued to their phones, computers and iPads.

“You justify carrying devices around the hospital to do medical records,” he said. “But you can surf the Internet or do Facebook, and sometimes, for whatever reason, Facebook is more tempting.”

A simple answer, some say, would be to ban non-medical use of smartphone and tablet apps. But like trying to ban texting and driving, that would be near impossible to enforce.

A better way would be to increase awareness and education of the phenomenon. The Times article is a good start. I had no idea how bad the problem was.

In medical school and residency, there are few courses on online professionalism. Perhaps that needs to be part of the curriculum. We need social media and health 2.0 role models who can teach physicians, residents and medical students not only how to act professional online, but also on appropriate mobile technology use in the clinic and hospital.

The problem is, there are too few of these role models. In their absence, much of what we do to address this issue will be reactionary, and likely after a well-publicized malpractice case.

 is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of, also on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.


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