[image credit: Daily Utah Chronicle]
I think all of us who use mobile devices have what I will call continuous partial attention. And that is, we’re engaged in our work, but at the same time we’re checking that email or we’re glancing at that instant message.
– Dr. John Halamka, COO Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, via NPR
Some time ago, National Public Radio ran a story about the advantages and potential dangers of mobile technology in the hands of doctors and other health care practitioners as they roam hospital halls and clinic corridors attempting to heal the sick. At its core, the story was no different than the one I read in Autmobile magazine just before going to sleep the night before: Do it all, hyper-connected mobile devices just might be as distracting and dangerous as they are useful and utopian.
From emergency rooms to on-ramps and everywhere in between, the story’s pretty much the same. Smartphones and tablets are wonderfully capable and portable, keeping everything from stock quotes to video chats with faraway loved ones at our fingertips so long as there’s juice in the battery and a strong Internet connection ticking the antennae. Smartphones and tablets are also dangerously addictive and can lead to everything from sleepless nights to fatal auto accidents if not carefully checked. Our brains learn to love the steady trickle drip of RSS feeds and social streams, and our eyes wander from scanning the highway to scrolling through playlists and nav screens, all of which can prove detrimental to the task at hand.
So it’s no surprise that at the same time entrepreneurs and investors are pouring tens of millions of dollars and umpteen people-hours into developing next-gen health tech apps for touch screens, so too are leading medical researchers and practitioners coming out with warning cries against the dangers of distracted doctors tending to patients with iPads in hand. According to the same NPR story, “In a recent survey, 55 percent of medical technicians nationwide said they used their cell phones during procedures and nearly half admitted texting.”
It’s one thing to get caught texting instead of paying attention at a dinner party, but it’s quite another when you’ve literally got someone’s life in your hands. Jenny Green of NPR partner Kaiser Health News recounts one particularly alarming incident that shows that the dangers of distractions are just as deadly whether you’re behind the wheel or on the job:
In December, Halamka [who also serves as co-chair of the federal government’s committee on health information technology] wrote up a case study of an incident at a different hospital. A team of doctors there was making rounds and decided to stop giving one patient a blood thinner he was on. But as one of the residents was entering the new order into her smartphone, she got a text about a party. She was so busy RSVP-ing that she never completed the drug order. It wasn’t a small mistake. The patient almost died.
And yet the incredibly flexible power of tablets and smartphones makes them near no-brainers for advancing the cause for higher-quality, lower-cost health care for all. So what’s the answer? One answer may lie in health care practitioners checking their personal Droids and iPhones at the door when they report for duty, in exchange for hospital-issued devices outfitted only with approved apps. According to NPR, “most of” the 1,000 iPads and 1,600 iPhones at Beth Israel are owned by the doctors themselves. That’s a whole lot of potential Facebook updates and Draw Something notifications to distract doctors and nurses from researching symptoms and checking drug protocols on their mobile devices.
Much as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed stricter guidelines for what infotainment systems should – and should not – be available to drivers when they’re behind the wheel, perhaps the answer for distracted docs is as simple as a lockdown on non-essential apps in the workplace. Save Twitter and Gmail for off-hours and stick to epocrates and the like in the hospital. Could the answer be that simple? And health care providers out there, would you be willing to leave your personal tech in your locker during your shifts?