What Role Should Smartphones Play In The Operating Room?

By Phoebe Flanigan (OPB)
July 30, 2015 8:54 p.m.

From the home to the workplace, smartphones have become a mainstay of modern life. Now, hospitals are struggling to deal with the growing problem of mobile technology in the operating room.


Health care professionals are encouraged to access patient data, but what happens when they use their device to check email or tweet something during a procedure that requires their attention?

Jesseye Arrambide is the executive director of the Oregon Outpatient Surgery Center. She's also one of many in the medical field who is worried that smartphone availability has outpaced the development of good rules and policies governing their use. That's why, in 2011, she implemented a policy banning smartphone use in the patient care areas of her facility.

"To me," Arrambide said, "it's just a no-brainer."


As head of the Oregon Patient Safety Commission, Bethany Walmsley is also worried about the potential for smartphone distractions to cause harm in the operating room. "Even the most skilled person can get distracted," Walmsley said.

Distraction isn't her only concern. Walmsley said that smartphones can also be a vector for infection and disease in a sensitive hospital environment. Safety, she said, is about shutting down those opportunities. "Unless there’s a very good reason, there’s not a lot of common sense in having them in there."

But smartphones in the operating room aren't inherently a bad idea. In some cases, they can even be lifesaving. As Stephen Robinson, vice-chair of clinical anesthesia at Oregon Health and Science University noted, "The cellphone is really just one tool that people can use or misuse."

Still, Robinson is well aware of the risks, and advocates that smartphone distraction not be taken lightly.

"You don’t want people caring for patients being distracted by things that aren’t patient related. If you’re doing a particular task with a patient, you shouldn't be interrupted unless it’s extremely critical,"  Robinson said.

Ultimately, Robinson explained, it all boils down to context.

"You have to start with, what is it you're trying to accomplish? The activity you're engaged in, is that enhancing the patient care or detracting from it?"