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

I’m cynical enough to wonder if this has more to do with the profits hospitals make from their cut of the charges for having a landline phone in your room, instead of any unlikely interference with medical equipment.

Don’t they have interference filters in that expensive medical equipment? My cheap kitchen radio does.

What, I should check with Snopes every time my friend tells me something that happens to her?

At the time (1997) it was impossible to check with Snopes anyway. The filling station where it happened (a Sinclair station) took it seriously enough to put up a sign, although the sign is gone now.

I’ve heard about the static electricity, too. I can see this as a factor. Women (and this friend in particular) tend to wear more slippery kinds of things that build up a charge.

The main concern with cell phones in hospitals is interference with medical equipment. Factors involved include the strength of the signal, GPRS v CDMA phones, proximity to the equipment, and the age of the equipment itself. In particular older equipment tends to be less adequately shielded.

This is a longish topic with a disproportionate amount of hysteria (in my personal opinion) around an unenforceable ban. The ubiquity of cell phones means no ban is going to work. If your IT/Engineering department is concerned, you better buy shielded equipment…

One of the things that happens is that engineers are asked if it’s a problem, since we physicians aren’t engineers. The engineer does tests which are legitimate concerns in a lab but which don’t translate into real life. Here is an example from my home hospital (where we allow, encourage, and enable cell phones ((by putting in a whole network of cellular antennas inside the hospital to make sure cell phone reception is excellent inside the hospital)): one of our patients had a funny wiggle on the telemetry monitor. Cause? His cell phone was resting on an EKG lead. Now to an engineer, that’s a bad thing. To a clinician who looks into the room to check on the patient? “Sir, let me put your cell phone back on the bedside stand.”

I’ve done a number of presentations at national meetings around our hospital’s decision. An opposing view at one meeting was presented by a guy from McGill University who had spent many years researching EDI (Electronic Data Interference) and was convinced it was a huge safety concern to have cell phones in the hospital. His index case was a baby incubater which was dangerously overheating for unknown reasons. Cause: microwave transmissions coming through a nearby window from an antenna across the street.

I replied that that was my point exactly: if you are concerned about EDI, you need to specify properly shielded equipment. Worrying about 0.3W cell phones in every visitor’s purse and pocket, and trying to police use within a hospital is not going to work, nor is it going to help much when the rest of the spectrum is being bombarded with external signals.

Recently, I did a clinical day at a hospital that not only allows cell phone use, but uses cell phones to tell the nurses and other staff that they are needed in a certain room. Instead of paging a specific staff person, they contact them on the cell. It makes a hospital much quieter ( the phones beeped quietly) and it seemed to be working well.

It’s also worth mentioning that on very rare occasions, cell phones have been known to burst into flames all by themselves, though that is generally due to a damaged battery (and, I understand, is just an inherent risk with batteries, with cell phones being more prone to being knocked around than a car battery). Mind you, you’re probably more likely to win the lottery while having a stroke than you are to have your cell phone turn into a signal flare while you are filling your gas tank.

I recently had the pleasure of spending several hours hanging out in a hospital as part of my job in my squadron’s Charge of Quarters office (basically, one of the airmen had to be taken to a hospital off base, so we were assigned shifts sitting outside her room in case she needed anything from the base or vice versa). I asked about the cell phone issue, since I use my phone to keep in touch with my supervisor, and was told that it was no problem at all.

Now, getting a signal inside the hospital? That was a problem.

All in all, I suspect that the “interference” caused by cell phones is more of a case of indirect interference. People on phones not paying attention to what’s going on around them, or talking unnecessarily loud, etc.

Additionally, field studies have shown that women are more than twice as likely as men to get back in the car while refueling. When they get back out, sliding across the upholstery builds up a nice charge; then when they reach for the nozzle to take it out, ZAP. If the fuel-air mix in the vicinity of the spark is in the right range it’ll ignite.

Snopes has been around since 1995 or so, IIRC.
My father was in the hospital last month and I noticed this hospital had taken their ‘turn your cell phone off before entering’ signs down. I had always seen them at the door in the past. I wondered about it at the time, but had other things on my mind. This thread brings up my curiosity too. The hospital must have changed their policy as I didn’t see anything regarding cell phone usage, even in my Dad’s room.

When I was in for my surgery in June, there were no signs about cell phones being prohibited. Whenever my little rolly-table had to be moved (because I moved from the bed to the chair, or the chair to the bed, or used the restroom and came back, etc.), it was always carefully re-positioned by the nurse or nurse’s aid so that I had easy access to my water, my book and my cell phone.

if hospitals do have such a ban I suspect it’s to avoid interference with the patient monitoring equipment. Some of the equipment is quite sensitive and just a little noise or interference will result in faulty readings or lots of false alarms. False alarms are particularly galling since every such alarm must be answered and this wastes a lot of the nurses time.

A few weeks ago one of our children was taken to the hospital after an epileptic seizure. He was later transferred to a larger, nearby hospital. Because I was trying to keep my husband informed of the situation and coordinate practical details with him, and then track down the teacher who was with him during the seizure because the doctors had some questions, I made more calls from my cell phone that day than I normally make in a month. At the time I had other things on my mind than cell phone bans, but when things had calmed down I realized that no one had said anything, nor had I seen any signs. Nurses and doctors had seen and heard me using the phone, and no one had asked me to hang up and use a landline instead.

The actual study is here:

Figure 1 on page 4 plots number of incidents against distance.

From the abstract:

Other sources claim current US cell phones top out at 600 mW.

I think some hospitals may have just given up on a total ban. When my friend was in the hospital last month, nothing was said about her cell phone being in plain sight while she was in a room. When she was transferred to ICU there were signs leading into ICU asking that the phones be turned off, but we could use them in the waiting room.

Wow - I post a question and come back to all these replies! Thanks!!

I did a little googling after I posted and came up with conflicting studies (the Mayo one and the Dutch? one). Interesting that Mayo said (IIRC) “They’re fine, as long as you keep them three feet away from equipment” and another one said “they’re DANGEROUS, so keep them three feet away from equipment”. Yep, same thing, different angles :slight_smile:

I guess my plan of action, for the future, will be to do just that. Leave it on and use as needed unless I’m somewhere where I might be right next to something important.

Oh yeah - when I was in the hospital for Moon Unit’s birth, all the nurses would come in at the start of their shift, and give me a phone number that would reach a portable phone they hadwith them. It was a system specific to the interior of the hospital, rather than a true cell phone (I think) but I guess some of the same issues might apply. I didn’t like the system mainly because it meant I had to find that paper every time I needed something vs. simply using the call-button.