Dr. Kuppersmith likens the distractions of mobile technology to the earliest training college graduates receive in medical school: Prioritize the situation. “Most of us are trained to triage what the most important thing is,” he said. “The nature of what we do, there are interruptions. What channels they come through, I don’t think it really matters.”
Explore This IssueSeptember 2012
Gregory McNeer, Jr., a principal of Stratford Consulting in Winston-Salem, N.C., who recently helped organize a webcast for physicians on the dangers of technology and privacy laws, agrees that judicious use of available technology can counteract the pitfalls. “I’ve seen some doctors who really seem to be surgically attached to what I call their ‘electronic leash,’” he said. “They respond to every buzz and beep and burp they get. They like that; they like the connectedness of it. But I’ve also seen, from my perspective, [that] it degrades the nature of the doctor-patient relationship if they are not able to limit their jumping back and forth between their electronic device and the issue at hand—the patient in front of them.”
The same can even hold true for otolaryngologists who might check a mobile device during surgery, depending on the circumstances. A study in Perfusion, a journal focused on perfusion, oxygenation and biocompatibility and their uses in modern cardiac surgery, found that 55 percent of technicians who monitor bypass machines had talked on cell phones during heart surgery (Perfusion. 2011;26;375-380). Half of the study participants said they had texted while in surgery. Yet, roughly 40 percent described talking on the phone during surgery as “always an unsafe practice,” while roughly half expressed the same sentiment about texting while in surgery.
While the study results—and the national attention they garnered in an article in The New York Times—paint a picture of a troubled technological tableau, McNeer said nuance makes all the difference. “It’s just a question of, like so many things, degrees,” he said. “Do you have a man or woman in the middle of a sensitive operation who is constantly looking down at his or her iPhone because it keeps buzzing all the time, or do you have someone who is focused on the task at hand and then, at an appropriate time, steps back, takes a breath, checks her phone and goes back to the patient?”