Mobile Use in Hospitals

While the mobile phone industry believes people should turn off their mobile phones when requested by hospitals, there is little evidence of interference with medical equipment in general use. In fact many hospitals are using wireless technology to reduce medical errors, improve quality of patient care, enhance efficiency and decrease costs.

Hospitals originally banned phones due to anecdotal evidence that they could interfere with monitors and pacemakers. However, neither the American Medical Association (AMA) nor the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) presently condone blanket bans on using mobile phones in hospitals. Instead, both organisations encourage hospitals to develop local guidelines to minimise the risk of interference, by taking into account local circumstances, including the location of sensitive medical equipment. The MHRA issued a media release stating:

The Agency does not recommend a blanket ban on the use of mobile phones in hospitals, recognising that they are in everyday use and provide practical means of communication for people.

In fact, earlier this year the Hong Kong Hospital Authority (HA) announced a relaxation of the guidelines for using mobile phones in public hospitals. The HA ruled that the relaxation of rules would enhance the internal communication efficiency of public hospitals and allow greater convenience for the public. Healthcare workers and members of the public are now allowed to use a mobile phone anywhere within a public hospital, except in some designated areas. Prior to the announcement, the HA conducted tests on electromagnetic interference on medical equipment. The HA concluded:

The outcome reveals that the use of mobile phones at a distance of one metre from the medical equipment is safe, and the assessment also aligns with other international studies on EMI Tests. 

Recently, research was conducted in the US at the Mayo Clinic by Jeffrey Tri et al, (published in March 2007) which found that interference of any type occurred in 0 of the 75 patient care rooms during the 300 tests performed. The researchers concluded:

Although cellular telephone use in general has been prohibited in hospitals because of concerns that these telephones would interfere with medical devices, this study revealed that when cellular telephones are used in a normal way no noticeable interference or interactions occurred with the medical devices. 

Furthermore, the researchers suggested:

If no clinically important adverse effects occur as a result of using cellular telephones in the hospital, then it seems that the advantages that this technology brings to institution and patients would be well received. 

Additionally, Dr Erik van Lieshout, lead researcher from the Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam published a study into the use of mobile phones in hospitals in September 2007. The study found that the median distance at which higher rates of EMI incidents occur falls within the “one-metre-rule” that is widely considered as a safe distance from equipment. Dr van Lieshout said: 

It is unlikely that mobile phone induced EMI in hospitals will be eradicated in the near future so the one meter rule currently in place should continue, as it is relatively safe. 

More recently, in October 2007, S. Iskra et al published a study comparing the potential for interference to medical devices from radio frequency (RF) fields radiated by WCDMA mobile phone handsets. The researchers concluded:

WCDMA handsets are unlikely to be a significant threat to medical electronics at typical separation distances. 

Other research has supported these findings, with only a small minority of medical equipment that may experience interference from nearby electrical and radio devices, including 2-way radios and mobile phones. A UK study, published in 1997, found:

…only 4% of devices suffered interference from cell phones at a distance of 1m, with less than 0.1% showing serious effects. 

In regards to signal emissions from mobile telecommunications base station antennas that are positioned on the roof of, or in close proximity to hospitals, the 1997 UK report concluded:

Cellular base stations (the arrays of aerials on the roofs of tall building which relay mobile phone messages to the telephone system) are unlikely to interfere with medical devices, unless they are exceptionally sensitive. 

Furthermore, in building antenna systems can be programmed to ensure that mobile phones in hospitals operate significantly below their nominal maximum power, which greater reduces potential interference risks.

More over, there are a number of benefits of allowing mobile phones in hospitals. Many patients suffer isolation while in hospital and are unable to contact their relatives or businesses to inform them about their condition or when they may be discharged. Mobile phones can assist patients to communicate with loved ones.

A report issued by the MHRA stated: 

Doctors and pharmacists would benefit from using mobile phones rather than pages. And many patients in hospitals would welcome the opportunity to relieve their isolation without resorting to expensive hospital phones that are cumbersome to use.

Whether you are medical staff, a patient or a visitor, mobile phones can be extremely useful in hospitals. However, it is always important to be mindful of other people. The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association recommends people only make calls in designated areas; turn off phones while speaking to medical staff; and always keep ring tones and conversations at a low volume.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s (MHRA) fact sheet on mobile phone use in hospitals is available online.

Mobile Phones and Hospitals - Etiquette Tips

Respect is the Most Important Call

Mobile phones can be extremely useful in hospitals whether you are medical staff, a patient or a visitor. However, when using a mobile phone, it is important to be mindful of other people. By following these simple steps you are sure not to offend others.

  1. Only use your mobile phone in designated areas: Research shows that it is unlikely mobile phones will interfere with medical equipment unless in extremely close proximity. However it is still important to follow hospital policy. Signs should clearly indicate where mobile phones can and cannot be used. However if in doubt, ask a staff member.
  2. Turn the volume on silent and activate the vibrate alert: Imagine the commotion if everybody in a hospital had their mobile phones on loud and intrusive tones - 24 hour ringing and beeping is not conducive to a hospital’s environment. A vibrating alert will ensure calls do not disturb patients and healthcare professionals.
  3. Speak softly: Always try to speak in hushed tones on your mobile phone when visiting a hospital. Your mobile phone has a sensitive microphone capable of picking up a soft voice and the person on the other end of the phone will still be able to hear you. Watch the reactions of people near you to determine if your voice is too loud.
  4. Keep conversations private: Many conversations contain information that should remain confidential such as private or personal health matters. Before using a mobile phone in a hospital to discuss private issues, make sure that there will be enough distance to keep the content private. Some stories, some issues and some conflicts should be saved for times and locations that will allow for confidentiality. In some situations it might be better to send a text message.
  5. Use Message Services to Answer Calls: If a call is unnecessary or it will disrupt others to answer at the time, don’t answer the call and let it divert to voicemail or an answering service.
  6. Use mobile phones to avoid feeling cut off: Many patients suffer significant isolation while in hospital and are unable to contact their relatives or businesses to inform them about their condition or when they may be discharged. Mobile phones can assist patients to communicate with loved ones.
  7. Turn phone off while speaking to medical staff: Never leave your phone on a loud ring tone or answer your telephone while talking to medical staff. It is disruptive and often the information medical staff provides deserves full attention.
  8. When required, turn your phone off and check it’s off: There are some places in a hospital where you might not be able to talk on a mobile phone or send text messages. In these cases, turn your phone off and remember to check it’s off before you enter the area. You can always check your voicemail, text messages or your answering service afterwards.
  9. Use mobile phones to improve diagnosis: Many hospitals use mobile phones to improve diagnosis and treatment of patients. Photos can be sent, or symptoms can be explained over the phone, if a specialist is not available at the hospital at the time or a second opinion is needed quickly. This is particularly convenient for multidisciplinary care where a large number of experts may need to be synchronised at short notice.