Mobile Devices Distract Doctors. So What?

Cell phones and tablets can improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare--but do they exacerbate "distracted doctoring"? Some think so.

A fascinating article in the New York Times raises the allegedly growing problem of "distracted doctoring." The increasing use of mobile devices by medical practitioners, says the article, takes their attention away from the patient. There's obviously something to it, although the intimation of many quoted in the article to forbid such devices during treatment seems like an overreaction to me. Banning iPhones won't ban distractions.

The potential for mobile devices, cloud computing, and other new technologies to advance quality and efficiency in medicine is widely held. Enthusiasm for throwing tech money at the problem of health care is not as blind as it was in 2009 when $22.6 billion in stimulus money went to health information technology programs. Doctors, hospitals, and medical practices don't need stimulus money to see the advantages.

But of course, like the rest of us, doctors are going to use these devices for non-business reasons from time to time. The article cites examples of doctors making personal cell phone calls during surgery, anesthesiologists texting while gas-passing, and nurses and techs surfing the Web with the patient open.

Yes, smart phones are especially good distractions, but it's not like they invented distraction. If nurses and techs weren't playing Angry Birds 10 years ago when they had nothing to do, they might have been reading People magazine or doing a crossword puzzle, Surgeons might not have been making personal phone calls while sewing up patients, but they might have been having personal conversations with others in the room. What's the difference?

There are good reasons why doctors and techs might want to access computers or the Internet while working on patients, and there are bad reasons. These are people who we already entrust with a lot. It's just common sense to expect them to use these devices responsibly. But the sense you get from the article, especially from the malpractice lawyer, is that prohibition is on its way. Using your phone is just another thing he can latch on to in case there's some adverse outcome. And it's so much easier for rule-makers to just say no in all cases.

It's hard to advocate for the middle ground here, but just as with distracted driving, that's what we need to do.