medical errors caused by doctors distracted by cellphones

We’ve written several posts about how important it is for doctors to pay attention to their patients. Medicine is a science that requires a doctor’s full concentration. However, doctors, nurses and surgeons are increasingly distracted when they are with patients.

There have been several campaigns against drivers who use their cellphones behind the wheel. Distracted drivers cause thousands of fatal accidents every year. Unfortunately, it seems as though the same campaigning efforts need to be put toward health care professionals in Pittsburgh and throughout the country.

Several hospitals invested heavily to provide doctors and nurses with technology designed to give health care professionals instant access to patients’ records. Instead, the technology often distracts health care professionals, and it is a growing cause of negligent medical treatment.

Emerging research on the subject of distracted medical professionals is unnerving. One study found that 55 percent of technicians who monitor bypass machines admitted to talking on their cellphones during heart surgery, and half admitted to texting during surgery.

What may be even more unnerving is that only 40 percent said they believed talking on the phone during surgery is always an unsafe practice, and 50 percent said the same about texting. There are medical professionals who think talking or texting during surgery is safe, and that has the same potential to lead to serious, if not fatal, consequences as people who believe that texting while driving does not put themselves and others at risk.

One medical malpractice attorney worked with a patient who was left partially paralyzed after surgery. While the neurosurgeon was operating on the patient, he was also using a wireless headset to talk on his cellphone. During the surgery, he made at least 10 calls to family and business associates.

The technology was introduced to help health care professionals give patients the best care possible. Instead, the technology serves as a distraction, and it puts the lives of vulnerable patients as a second priority — coming after Amazon, Gmail, Facebook and checking the price of plane tickets.

One doctor has established a policy to make operating rooms “quiet zones,” effectively banning any activity that is not focused on patient care. This should be applauded and used as a model in other health care facilities. Unfortunately, if experience holds true, it will take more tragedies and more medical malpractice lawsuits to convince some doctors to put down the phone, turn off the Internet and focus on the task at hand — caring for patients who need and deserve their undivided attention.

Source: The New York Times, “As Doctors Use More Devices, Potential for Distraction Grows,” Matt Richtel, Dec. 14, 2011

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