Archive September 2017 XVIII, No. 9

Legal Update: Be Smart About Smartphone Use

Mitigate the legal risks of cell phones in your facility.

William Miller, JD

surgeon with a phone GOOD QUESTION Do surgeons really need their phones in or near the OR?

Most of us can't imagine spending a day without our precious smartphones, but they pose serious challenges to a surgical facility in the form of disruptions, distractions and even risk of infection. Whether those phones are in the hands of your surgeons and staff or your patients and their accompanying friends and family, you need to be able to answer one important question: Do the benefits of allowing unconditional smartphone use in your facility outweigh the risks? Let's take a closer look.

  • Surgeons and staff. At times, having surgeons and staffers on their phones in or near the OR is justified — when another patient is in intensive care or there are serious post-op complications, for example — but those instances should be few and far between. An OR nurse taking a brief moment to text her child or an anesthesiologist passing the downtime by updating his Facebook status might seem like innocent indulgences, but they can distract from the primary task of caring for the patient. Even a momentary distraction could result in the administration of the wrong medication, a mistake in the post-surgical count of sponges or instruments, or the inaccurate or insufficient retelling of discharge instructions.

The situation also presents a troublesome what-if scenario in the event of an adverse outcome. Let's say a patient came in for a colonoscopy and emerged from the procedure with a perforated bowel. If the physician had been using his phone within that time frame, the plaintiff's attorney may try to argue that the perforation resulted from the physician being interrupted by his phone while advancing the scope. As smartphone usage becomes more and more prevalent, attorneys will find themselves armed with ample ammunition, even in cases where an adverse outcome is due to a common complication that occurs in the absence of negligence.

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