Cell phone use is not generally restricted in the operating room. They can actually be beneficial in terms of improved communication, providing assistance during care, and reducing medical errors by, for example, providing instant access to patient data or prescription details. However, far too often we hear how such devices have taken a doctor’s focus away from the task at hand causing adverse effects on patients.
A 70-year-old New York woman has filed a lawsuit claiming she suffered emotional distress because her surgeon was taking a Spanish proficiency test on his cell phone during her surgery.
The patient was undergoing surgery to fix a varicose vein. Because she was only given local anesthesia, the woman said she was fully aware of what was happening around her. During the procedure, she heard the doctor on the phone talking in English and Spanish – both which the woman is fluent in – about his battles with diabetes, blurred vision, and night sweats, according to the lawsuit.
Following the operation, the woman confronted the surgeon about what she heard and her fears that his vision was impaired during the operation. The surgeon told her that he was taking a language proficiency exam because he has Spanish speaking patients and needed to be certified in that language. He also said that the only time he could take the exam was at the time of the operation.
The lawsuit states that while the surgery concluded without complications, the woman suffered serious emotional distress. The entity that owns the clinic where her surgery was performed is also named as a defendant. The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages.
Situations like this are more prevalent than most people realize, according to a 2015 Kaiser Health News report. The report cited one incident where an anesthesiologist was supposed to be monitoring a patient who was undergoing surgery. Twenty minutes lapsed before the anesthesiologist noticed the woman’s oxygen levels had dropped – allegedly because he was on his cell phone the whole time sending emails and text messages. The woman died during the operation.
One of the most notorious cases cited was that of comedienne Joan Rivers, who suffered cardiac arrest during a throat procedure and died a few days later. Federal investigators found that although not directly linked to her death, one of the doctors performing the procedure had been taking photos with his cell phone during the operation.
Patient safety advocates fear this growing problem will continue until hospitals put safeguards in place to avoid the risks of “distracted doctoring.” No federal regulations or industry-wide quality measures currently address the issue. Furthermore, there is no tracking system to monitor whether hospitals have policies and procedures regarding cell phone use.
Has the time come to implement stricter measures industry-wide? No matter your stand, I think we can all agree that avoiding distractions begins with the user. The last thing anyone wants to see happen is these devices coming between the patient and doctor.