2012-03-30 / State

A prescription for distraction?

By DAN KELLY
Reading Eagle


John Askew Sr., a patient left gives feedback to thirdyear Georgetown medical student Gregory Shumer after a training session in an examining room on the Georgetown Medical School campus in Washington. As the nation moves to paperless medicine, doctors are grappling with an awkward challenge: How do they tap the promise of computers, smartphones and iPads in the exam room without losing the human connection with their patients? Are the gadgets a boon, or a distraction? 
AP Photo/Kevin Wolf John Askew Sr., a patient left gives feedback to thirdyear Georgetown medical student Gregory Shumer after a training session in an examining room on the Georgetown Medical School campus in Washington. As the nation moves to paperless medicine, doctors are grappling with an awkward challenge: How do they tap the promise of computers, smartphones and iPads in the exam room without losing the human connection with their patients? Are the gadgets a boon, or a distraction? AP Photo/Kevin Wolf READING (AP) — Smartphones, iPads and other portable communications devices can put medical journals, patient records and test results at doctors’ fingertips.

But with 80 percent of physicians reporting that they use smartphones and one-third having iPads or other tablet devices at work, questions are being raised about whether patients are being treated by distracted doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.

A survey of 439 technicians done at the State University of New York Upstate Medical School in Syracuse found that 56 percent admitted using smartphones or other devices while operating a heart-lung machine during cardiac bypass surgery.

Another report said a medical resident who was told to stop a blood thinner for a patient was about to make the change on her smartphone when she received a text inviting her to a party. She responded to the text and forgot to change the patient’s prescription, nearly killing the patient.

That couldn’t happen at Reading Hospital, said Dr. Robert A. Brigham, chief of surgery at the hospital.

“Staff are issued hospital devices, and things like email, Facebook and other social media are blocked,” Brigham said. “No one is getting emails about a party on hospital devices.”

Employees are allowed to access their personal smartphones and other devices while on break or at lunch, he said.

Brigham said portable communications technology can be a double-edged sword.

“The good news is you have test results, medical records, X-rays, all that stuff at your fingertips,” Brigham said. “The bad news is you have all of that stuff at your fingertips.”

Because all hospitals must implement an electronic medical records system within the next few years, doctors who once gave patients their undivided attention now must enter patient data into a computer following an appointment, he said.

At St. Joseph Medical Center staff members embrace new technologies and the efficiencies they bring.

But that’s not to say they aren’t aware of the problems inherent in a digital workplace.

“We are cognizant of the potential for distraction,” said Michael B. Jupina, vice president of the hospital.

Jupina, who is in charge of communications and security at the hospital, said there are policies in place that govern use of smartphones and computers for anything but hospital business.

“There are attention issues so, for example, staff may not use Facebook or other social media when they are interacting with patients,” he said.

However, staffers are allowed to check their email, text messages and Facebook accounts when they are on break because the hospital’s official position is that social media are an effective communications tool when used judiciously.

Joyce Graham was a licensed critical care nurse before she earned a law degree. She is now corporate responsibility officer at St. Joseph.

She said distraction is a concern.

“The truth of the matter is that almost everyone is on Facebook and has a smartphone,” she said.

Rather than bar employees from using the new technologies at work, the St. Joseph policy is to allow the devices but to caution employees on their use.

“Employees have been disciplined for violating our social media policies,” Jupina added.

IT USED TO BE BEEPERS

Medical or other professionals who are constantly checking their electronic devices are nothing new, said Dana German, chief technology officer at Albright College.

“If we roll the clock back, they’re the same as doctors who were constantly checking their beepers,” German said.

New technology is integral to almost everything we do, enabling efficiency, aiding study and facilitating the sharing of thoughts across vast distances and even deposing oppressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa.

“But we have to be mindful of what we’re doing,” she said.

And not just at work.

“The parent on a cellphone during their child’s soccer game comes to mind.” German said.

And we have to know when to unplug.

German said that in her travels she has noticed that Americans have a much more difficult time than others disconnecting from their many devices and taking in their surroundings and connecting with the people they are with.

“We need to be more present in the moment,” German said. EFFICIENTLY USING TECHNOLOGY

That people are sometimes distracted by the smartphones, iPads and Bluetooth devices they may have is not the fault of the technology, said Dr. CJ Rhoads, associate professor of business at Kutztown University and chief executive of ETM Associates, a Douglassville-based management consulting firm.

“The evolution of technology does not affect the dynamics of human interaction,” Rhoads said. “We can either have deeper connections to a few people or shallow connections to many. All the technology does is erase the geographic limitations of those relationships.”

Problems people are having with technology, like a health care worker checking her Facebook or Twitter page while talking to a patient, a trucker talking on a cellphone or a shopper walking into a fountain at the local mall are not so much due to human error as they are to inexperience, Rhoads said.

“Technology is relatively new to the human race,” she said. “Most of us are still trying to find the most efficient use of technology.

People think by constantly checking email, Facebook, and Twitter they feel very connected until they try to organize a planned activity.

“We spend so much time being connected that we end up reacting to everything and that’s not good,” she said.

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