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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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How Connected Are Doctors To Patients In the OR?

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Everyone from young children to senior citizens have become increasingly glued to their phones — almost anywhere, at any time. Over the years, smartphones have even offered significant benefits for health care providers in terms of improved communication, providing assistance during care, viewing patient information and lab results on the fly, and quickly accessing guidelines and data. But, did you know that bringing one’s phone into the operation room is common? There have been a number of cases in recent years where such devices have taken a doctor’s focus away from the task at hand causing adverse effects on patients.

In 2011 incident, a Texas anesthesiologist was accused of sending text messages and emails while monitoring a patient. The 61-year-old woman was to have a routine operation to correct an irregular heartbeat. During surgery, the anesthesiologist allegedly didn’t notice for close to 20 minutes that the patient’s oxygen levels dropped. Why? He was looking at a cellphone or tablet. Ten hours after surgery began, the woman was dead. Her family sued the anesthesiologist, who initially testified that he did not surf the Internet or post to Facebook during surgery, and uses his cellphone only to check on patient care issues. But prosecutors found an entry on his Facebook page. He had also posted a photo of the anesthesia monitor during another surgery with the caption: “Just sitting here — sitting here watching the tube on Christmas morning. Ho, ho, ho,” he wrote. The case was settled before going to trial.

A Denver lawyer said he represented a patient who was left partly paralyzed after surgery because a neurosurgeon was distracted during the operation. According to the attorney, the surgeon was using a wireless headset to make personal calls on his cellphone. He said the case settled before a lawsuit was filed so there are no court records, like the name of the patient, doctor or hospital involved.

In 2014, Dr. Arthur Zilberstein, a Seattle-area anesthesiologist, had his medical license suspended over allegations that he exchanged personal and often sexually explicit text messages during procedures in which he was the responsible anesthesiologist. When authorities matched Zilberstein’s cell phone history with medical records, they found 23 cases in which he was texting during patient care, including during several cesarean deliveries and surgical procedures.

During the investigation into the death of comedian Joan Rivers, federal investigators found that although not directly linked to her death, the clinic director had taken a cell phone photo of the surgeon and Rivers while she was sedated.

Dr. Peter Papadakos, an anesthesiologist affiliated with the University of Rochester and leading expert on “distracted doctoring, warns that smart devices and social media have “an addictive element.” Papadakos believes more studies are needed to understand this form of compulsion and to figure out how it can be eliminated. “Even so, there shouldn’t be any confusion about health care providers and institutions’ obligation to protect patients in the meantime,” he said. “A surgeon addicted to alcohol or an illegal drug wouldn’t be allowed to operate while drunk or drinking — so why are physicians addicted to their iPhones and technicians given to texting still allowed in the operating room?”

Although patient safety advocates fear this growing problem will continue until hospitals put safeguards in place to avoid the risks of “distracted doctoring”, it begins with the user. You can use it to your distraction, or you can use it to your advantage. It’s your choice and your responsibility.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.