Smartphone Distractions Are A Problem In The Operating Room

Studies show smartphone use by staff is contributing to surgical errors

Most people know the dangers of texting or surfing the web while driving. A problem that is less well known, however, is what some are calling “distracted doctoring.” According to the Bend Bulletin, smartphone use by surgeons and medical staff in the operating room is leading to surgical errors. The problem is so bad that smartphone distractions were recently listed as one of health care’s top technology hazards. While patient safety advocates and some hospitals have tried to limit cellphone use in the operating room, they have experienced significant resistance from surgeons and staff.

Distracted surgery

The nonprofit ECRI Institute listed smartphones as one of the top ten technological dangers in health care for 2013. The listing was a result of a growing number of surgical errors caused by one or more people on the surgical team becoming distracted by a smartphone. In a notorious Dallas case, for example, a patient died during surgery after the anesthesiologist became distracted by a cellphone and didn’t notice the patient’s low blood-oxygen levels.

A recent study by Oregon State University-Cascades and Oregon Health and Science University showed just how dangerous distractions can be in the operating room. During simulated surgery, the researchers interrupted surgical residents with either a cellphone call or a person asking a question. Out of the 18 residents surveyed, eight made surgical errors when they were interrupted. By comparison, when the residents weren’t interrupted only one of them made a mistake.

Resistance from staff

Many safety advocates want cellphones banned from the operating room, but they are experiencing considerable resistance from surgeons and other medical staff. A 2011 survey, for example, found that over half of perfusionists (who are responsible during heart surgery for the heart-lung bypass machines) admitted to using cellphones during operations. An overwhelming majority of respondents (93 percent) said they have never been distracted during surgery because of their phones, yet a third of respondents said they have seen coworkers who were distracted by cellphones during surgery.

As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, the problem of surgical errors has received increased focus lately. With up to 65 percent of adverse patient events being linked to surgeries, hospitals are beginning to realize that one of the keys to improving patient safety is improving operating room culture.

Medical malpractice

During surgery, a patient deserves to have the undivided attention of everybody on the operating team. Yet, as the above story shows, distractions are a very real threat in the operating room. Anybody who has been injured because of a potentially negligent medical professional should contact a medical malpractice attorney. The right attorney can assist injured patients in understanding what rights they have and whether compensation can be sought for their injuries.