Plenty of doctors love their smartphones and appreciate their capabilities in patient care immensely. Smartphones enhance healthcare communication and, since a wealth of health monitoring and condition tracking apps are available on the market, can actually help patients maintain their personal wellness.
But the current ubiquity of smartphone technology isn’t an entirely positive situation for physicians. There are plenty of potential hazards related to the presence of mobile devices in the medical practice.
And no, we’re not talking about concerns that cell phone use impacts your cancer risk. Despite their many advantages, smartphones can incite privacy breaches, distraction issues and other troubles, all of which make it important for you to decide what your office’s smartphone policy is – and enforce it.
Pictures Can Impact Patient Privacy
Countless patients every day use their smartphones while sitting in your waiting room. What they’re doing on those phones may seem harmless – it’s no trouble if a patient sends an email or plays Angry Birds while he’s waiting – but could be more compromising than you realize.
Cellphone cameras enable patients to snap pictures in your office. What could they be taking pictures of? Your waiting room, your staff or, most worryingly, your other patients.
Sure, your patients can’t violate HIPAA with such actions, as healthcare professionals can. But if a snap of one of your patients, taken by another of your patients, is uploaded to social media and the photographed person takes issue, your practice could be in hot water. The aggrieved party would have the right to file a complaint with HHS’ Office for Civil Rights if she felt her privacy was violated, which would then place your practice under investigation.
The “Unfocused Physician” Issue
Another concern smartphones raise is the danger of what some are calling “distracted doctoring.” 80% of doctors carry smartphones at work, which means all of their devices’ diversionary apps and services are right there in their pockets while they’re practicing.
Research is showing that smartphone distractions are a problem for healthcare professionals. In study results published in the journal Perfusion, 55 percent of medical technicians surveyed said they’d used a cell phone during cardiopulmonary bypass surgery. Perhaps counterintuitively, 78 percent of respondents also expressed the belief that cell phones can introduce a potentially significant safety risk to patients.
“You justify carrying devices around the hospital to do medical records, but you can surf the Internet or Facebook,” said Dr. Peter J. Papadakos, an anesthesiologist, in comments to the New York Times on this issue. “Sometimes, for whatever reason, Facebook is more tempting.”
Recordings on the Record
You wouldn’t let a patient bring a video camera into the exam room without your OK; same goes for a patient loading up a tape recorder prior to a procedure.
In spite of any objections you may have to being recorded, your smartphone-wielding patients bring recording devices into their encounters every day. Were they to record your encounters in attempt to garner evidence against you, you’d likely be none the wiser. Is recording a visit legal on the patient’s part? In most states, yes.
A notable dispute recently arose in Arizona when a patient documented his dentist’s unprofessional behavior by recording a 28-minute procedure in its entirety, using his iPhone, while he was under anesthesia. The dentist’s attorney wrote a four-page letter to the TV station that broke the story to refute accusations that the doctor performed any inappropriate care. Nowhere in the letter did he say that the patient’s actions in recording the encounter were unlawful.
Play Defense with a Smartphone Policy
Many physicians and office managers are making up their rules regarding mobile devices on the fly, which is resulting in confusion for employees and patients. If all staffers and visitors are permitted to have their phones on them at all times, and no guidelines prohibit them using them for certain purposes, it’s hard for you to object when individuals use their phones in ways you find, well, objectionable.
Consider all of the capabilities smartphones offer and decide what is and is not appropriate in your office. Once you’ve outlined specific rules for visitors, draft up a smartphone policy handout, distribute it to all existing and new patients, post it in a highly visible location.
The same goes for behaviors you don’t want to see from your staff. Call a meeting to address problem phone use if you see troubling trends around the office. Make rules that clinicians and administrators must follow – no phones in the exam room, perhaps – and enforce your guidelines as you see fit.
Considering the threats smartphones can impose on your practice, a firm, well-enforced policy is your practice’s best protection against technology-abetted legal troubles.
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