Is technology improving or damaging the quality of patient care?

Chicago parents probably know all too well how distracted their teens can be by texting. And Illinois residents have most likely witnessed a driver almost hitting a pedestrian or another vehicle while the individual was too busy talking on his or her cell phone. But are doctors just as guilty as everyone else when it comes to being easily distracted by smartphones, computers, tablets and other devices?

Although many will agree that technology has certainly helped to reduce the number of medical errorsand mistakes made by doctors and other healthcare professionals, technology can also be a distraction, even in the operating room.

According to one recent survey regarding “distracted doctoring,” about 55 percent of the medical technicians who participated in the survey admitted to talking on their cell phones during heart surgeries while they monitored bypass machines. Some even admitted to texting during the operations.

In a recent incident in Denver, a neurosurgeon was using a wireless headset while he was performing surgery on a patient so that he could talk on his cell phone during the operation. Phone records indicated that the surgeon had placed at least 10 different phone calls during the surgery. The patient came out of the surgery partially paralyzed.

Other medical professionals have reported seeing co-workers using computers in intensive care units to check personal e-mails or to do online shopping. Now some medical students are given iPads so that they can easily access medical texts, but they can still be tempted to check Facebook.

In response to more medical professionals and students being distracted by technology that is meant to help them quickly access important tools and information when caring for patients, some hospitals and schools are beginning to ban or limit the use of the devices in certain situations. One doctor said that more hospitals need to inform staff about the dangers of being distracted by such devices before it gets worse. “My gut feeling is lives are in danger,” he said.

Research is lacking regarding just how many patients are put at risk by distracted doctors in Illinois and throughout the entire country. However, one could make the assumption that if a doctor is using a device for reasons other than to ensure that a patient is receiving the best care as possible, the doctor is putting the patient’s life in danger.

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

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