Digital innovations such as smart phones, tablet computers and social networking sites can be a boon when it comes to gaining or sharing information on the go, but this technology also has potential to distract to health-care professionals and result in more injured patients.

If used properly, technology may reduce medical errors through instant access to drug information, case studies and patient data, but a New York Times article recently revealed that clinicians sometimes use their smart phones and tablets for personal matters — checking social networking websites, news and even airfare prices while on the job — in a phenomenon termed “distracted doctoring.”

In a study published in the journal Perfusion, researchers surveyed 439 medical technicians who perform cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB). They found that more than 55% admitted to using a cell phone and 49% reported sending text messages during CPB. Among participants with smart phone features, 21% admitted to checking email, 15% used the internet and 3% posted on social networking sites during CPB. Despite the fact that some of the respondents may have engaged in these behaviors, more than 78% expressed concern that cell phones pose a potentially significant patient safety risk.

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In another news report, a patient was left partially paralyzed after a distracted neurosurgeon used a wireless headset to make at least ten personal calls to friends and business associates during the procedure.

Hoping to stop this emerging problem from spreading further, some hospitals are issuing new policies that restrict the use of cell phones and other devices. Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) hospitals established a policy to make ORs “quiet zones,” after several complaints that clinicians were using smart phones to check or send emails during intubation procedures prior to surgery. A nurse at an OHSU facility was later reprimanded for checking airline prices on an OR computer during a spinal operation.

Some medical schools are also responding to the problem by incorporating programs to teach students about ethically accessing clinical information with new technology, while remaining focused on the patients they are treating.