Is your doctor’s smart phone making you sick?

doctor-smartphoneWe already know that our smart phones are dirtier than toilet seats.

But is your doctor’s smart phone making you sick?

A recent article in the Irish Times revealed that doctors’ cell phones can be sources of potential life-threatening or fatal infections. No control protocols currently exist for the use of phones in many hospitals, making them potential agents for infection.

The article highlighted work done by researches from the Netherlands. The research team conducted medical research on smartphones, discovering that in five of eight hospital studies, doctors’ phones were carrying antibiotic-resistant bacteria on them. Among the infection-causing bacteria the studies found was Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

The potentially fatal MRSA has no control protocol, making it a very serious threat to hospital patients and others with compromised immune systems. The strain of bacteria is also known as oxacillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (ORSA). While the bacteria is resistant to forms of penicillin, it is not considered more virulent. Because it is responsible for many diseases that are difficult, and in some cases impossible, to treat in humans, it is considered very dangerous.

Smartphones and Hygiene

The VU (Free University) Medical Centre research team in Amsterdam conducted studies in eight hospitals in the Netherlands. The results showed that more than 80 percent of doctors in hospitals carried smartphones with them. 57 percent used them while they were treating and meeting with patients, disregarding proper hygiene.

Given that the average smartphone harbors more than 25,000 bacteria per square inch, making them dirtier by far than public toilet seats, using them while treating patients could lead to infection.

Published in the medical journal Medisch Contact, the findings of the studies showed that up to 95 percent of the 989 doctors’ cell phones that were tested were infected with nosocomial and healthcare-related bacteria. Medisch Contact strives to keep doctors informed and educated about current research that affects their practice.

The most disturbing finding, however, is related to antibiotic resistant bacteria. In five of the eight hospitals that where the study was conducted, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including MRSA, were discovered to be living on doctors’ smartphones. MRSA is better known as the hospital super bug that resists all current control methods and antibiotics. Patients with weakened or compromised immune systems can develop fatal infections from MRSA, including endocarditis and blood poisoning.

Rings, long sleeves, and watches are already banned in many hospital and healthcare environments because of the risks they pose to hygiene and patient health. Smartphones, however, because they are used to contact doctors and keep them informed, are heavily used by doctors and hospital staff. Doctors carry them everywhere, including areas in and out of hospitals that are not considered hygienic. Until protocols and rules regarding the cleanliness of cell phones in hospitals are created, they remain uncontrolled carriers of bacteria and infectious agents.

Proper Hand Hygiene

While eliminating the use of smartphones while treating patients may seem like the best answer to preventing hospital infections, it is unlikely that phones will be banned from healthcare facilities. They are a useful and powerful tool for contacting doctors, and keeping hospital staff informed. An alternative to banning the use of smartphones in hospitals is to promote and enforce proper hand hygiene.

What makes our phones so dirty? One reason is because we keep them in close proximity to our bodies (in our pockets, usually) where they are kept warm, touched frequently, and rarely disinfected or cleaned. These conditions are perfect for bacteria to flourish in. The average cell phone is also used every six minutes, making it one of the most touched things in our lives, and one of the dirties.

Because we touch them so frequently, and during all times of the day, it’s no surprise that your phone is only as clean as your hands are at the time you touch its surface. Incorporating proper and effective hand washing methods can help prevent the unchecked growth of bacteria, especially in hospital and healthcare settings.

Effective hand washing techniques aren’t as commonly practiced as they should be. Some studies have revealed that only 5 percent of people wash their hands properly after using the restroom.

You can keep your hands clean by :

  • Giving them a thorough wash and scrub. To kill and remove bacteria and the dirt and grime that it clings to, you need to vigorously wash your hands with hand soap for at leaset 20 seconds. Scrub all of your fingers, both sides of your hands, and under your nails to make sure all surfaes are fully exposed to soap and friction. Rinse your hands completely, and dry with a paper towel. Washing for less than 20 seconds, or not thoroughly scrubbing your hands, can be a waste of time because it doesn’t fully clean your hands.
  • Opt for automatic hand hygiene facilities. The fewer contaminated surfaces you touch, the more you reduce your chance of infection or cross contamination. Automatic sinks, automatic foaming hand soap dispensers, and automatic hand towel dispensers help eliminate the need to touch high traffic surfaces in restrooms and keep your hands cleaner.

Hopefully the results of the Dutch studies will pave the way for improved phone hygiene in hospital environments. The fact that doctors may be infecting their own patients through the use of their cell phones is powerful information that could change the way cell phones are used in the healthcare industry. Whether protective films or some other disinfecting methods are employed, something needs to change to improve phone hygiene and protect patients from infection.

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