Hospitals and cell phone bans - what's the Straight Dope?

Nearly every hospital I’ve had occasion to visit, in the past 10+ years, has had prominent signs saying in Big, Unfriendly Letters that “if you don’t turn off your cell phone when you’re within 20 miles of this building you’ll kill every patient inside and most of their visiting relatives”.

…or something like that.

The one exception (until the other day) was the hospital where my mother died a couple of years ago - no such sign, and we siblings had our cell phones on - and in use - for several days while Mom was ill. We’re pretty sure we didn’t do her in.

The other day, Typo Knig was in for surgery at a place near our house. I looked for such signs at the hospital entrance, and didn’t see them, so I left my phone on (Typo told me they used to have the signs, but had taken 'em down). Wasn’t until after he’d been wheeled away and was in surgery for most of an hour that I saw such a sign, displayed behind the receiptionist’s desk in the surgery waiting room.

Fortunately at that point there were only two patients left in the place; I know the other patient survived and certainly Typo appears to have done so, :wink: so I don’t think I committed involuntary manslaughter.

But really - what is it about cell phones and hospital equipment? Is this another of those “use it and your gas pump will explode” myths? I once used one in the ER in California (long story but it was essential we speak with someone on the east coast) right in front of a doctor and she didn’t even blink.

I used to work for a hospital, and pretty much everybody in my department had cell phones and used them.

There were places in the hospital where they were asked to turn them off (radiology, for instance) and places that had a lot of shielding where they just wouldn’t work (or maybe that was radiology). Some areas have lots of sophisticated electronic equipment and there’s a chance the cell phone signal, which are really more like a two-way radio, could interfere. Our people who needed them had pagers that still worked in these places, and upon getting a page the protocol was to move to an area where cell phone usage was allowed (or where cell phones worked, obviously) to make the call.

Honestly I think a lot of people just got annoyed by cell phones in general, because people on cell phones can be really obnoxious. There was for a while a sign in my post office saying cell phone usage was prohibited there. It’s gone now. But it’s basic courtesy, I think, to get off your cell phone when it’s your turn at the window. Or to keep your conversation modulated rather than just belting out your responses to the caller.

I don’t work for a hospital anymore so I just don’t know.

The thing about cell phones and gas pumps, however, is not a myth. My best friend had an incident where there was an actual flame in her gas tank while she was pumping gas. This was long before all the internet warnings about it (all of which she has duly forwarded to all her friends, however, ever since). The incident she had could have been something else but, since she was on her cell phone at the time, and has never had that happen before, there could be a connection. Some gas stations have warning signs.

I don’t have a real answer, but I assumed it was because they didn’t want your phone to interfere with any of their own communications. I spent a lot of the early part of this year visiting hospitals, and while they had signs posted, nobody seemed to care much about phone use.

Last June, my husband was in the hospital for the weekend, and I never turned mine off. I just turned it to silent. The reason they gave us was that the signal would interfere with the speakers of the people who couldn’t speak normally, and used a speaker to talk. I forget the word. I believed that reason, because I’ve had it interfere with my computer speakers, but there wasn’t anybody using a speaker near his room, so I used mine, discreetly.

[QUOTE=Hilarity N. Suze
The thing about cell phones and gas pumps, however, is not a myth… [/QUOTE]

So 12 volts 100 mA cellphone batteries are hazardous but 12 volt 50 Amp or whatever car batteries are safe? I don’t buy it!

I work in a hospital, and I often use my cell phone. We encourage patients not to use theirs, ostensibly because it can affect some medical equipment. I’ve seen patients in monitoring units or the ICU hooked up to nearly every psosible piece of medical equipment under the sun, with a spouse or child chatting merrily next to them. None of the fancy gizmos have ever explode.

As it happens, most places in major hospitals just don’t let you get a very good signal. Hospitals are pretty sturdily built affairs.

Maybe I know nothing about cars, but isn’t your car supposed to be off while you’re refueling?

Never mind. Wasted post.

Also, it could have been caused by static electricity. People who get back in their cars while refueling can develop a charge from sliding across their car seats. The trick is to ground yourself by touching your car frame near the front of your car before touching the fuel hose.

I can’t say that your friend’s particular instance was static electricity, but it happens. And for some reason, women are more likely to get back into the car while pumping, so it happens to women more often than to men.

I have no information on how likely cell phones are to cause a spark.

Ask her if she remembers whether she entered and exited her vehicle during fueling. While I am not saying that her cell phone absolutely could not have caused a spark, it seems much more likely to me that she had a static charge built up, and that a spark from this is what caused the gas tank flame. Just my WAG.

Mythbusters did an episode on this and that is exactly what they reported. The spark was more likely to happen if synthetic fabric rubbed on the car seat and built up some static electricity. They concluded that women are more likely to be wearing the kinds of clothes that would have this effect. That they (or someone nearby) was on a cell phone at the time was simply a coincidence.

Yet another reason why people in NJ (and Oregon IIRC) are smart to require a pump jockey to actually put the gas in the tank. No reason to exit the car at all, a perfect time to use the cell.

You might want to take thet up with Snopes

From earlier this month:

Qadgop, do you know what the differences were between the study you cited, and the experiments Mayo conducted earlier this year that found no interference from cell phones? Maybe a difference in cell phone technology or the type of medical equipment tested?

The big reason I was given for the no-cell rule was that cell phones interfere with portable telemetry systems that send signals back wirelessly; there was some concern that the telemetry unit would register an inaccurate reading.

The other two were practical matters. The first had to do with patient privacy; the hospital didn’t want the risk of sensitive information being picked up by a cell phone. The second was that some of the nurses had problems with oblivious chatters standing in their way. For both reasons, it was easier to send people to the lounges outside the wards to use their phones with the excuse that the cell phones caused “interference”.


It’s a proximity issue. Using your cell phone in the lobby isn’t going to do anything to the heart machine in the rooms down the hall, let alone something in the next building over. The signal has to be pretty close to cause a problem. Based on my experience with audio interference on microphones, I’d say the three feet in Qadgop’s link is a good estimate.
Wireless routers similarly have to be placed carefully to not cause interference with medical equipment.

The article mentions WiFi-based devices in particular. If they are a problem, that’s could be a big issue for hospitals, since many use WiFi-enabled tablet computers, medical carts or voice communication devices.

No clue. I just noticed the story. I don’t work in a hospital anymore, so it’s not so near and dear to my daily routine at this point.

My hospital actually has wifi attatchments to monitors, in order to send all the info to a central database where some bored NA gets to watch screens for 10 hours at a go. (it’s really weird, the ceiling of the hospital is dotted with what appears to be the same sort of wireless router I have in my living room)
I wonder how we avoid the sorts of problems brought up by Q’s cite. I’ll go bother my hospital’s Risk Management team and report back what they say.

I had the fun time of spending several hours over two days in a hospital emergency room last weekend, and this question occurred to me as well. We were in a room with a very prominent sign just outside the door that said cell phones and two way radios were not allowed, and had to be shut off. I shut mine off.

However, virtually all of the staff had two way radios (or cell phones with the walkie-talkie feature) that they were using to communicate with each other, as well as all the paramedics and ambulance crews that came through. There was an almost constant bit of radio chatter going on all the time. Both the doctor and nurse who attended to us stopped more than once to answer a call on the radio hanging on the clip at their waist.

I was going to ask if the sign was just there out of habit, but never got around to it.