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Using Your Phone at Work Can Lead to Life-Threatening Errors, Study Finds

Cell phone addiction can have deadly consequences when you care for patients for a living.

Photo by: iStockphoto

When your friends who don’t work in healthcare take a quick peek at their cell phones on the job, the worst that will probably happen is a slap on their wrist. But when you save lives for a living, the stakes of even a brief distraction are much higher. At least, that’s what recent research published in JAMA Pediatrics, which followed more than 200 nurses working in a pediatric intensive care unit, indicates.

The study followed 3,308 patients and 257 nurses, roughly half of whom received a call 10 minutes before administering medication to a patient. The nurses who were distracted made mistakes at a rate of 3.7%, notably higher than the error rate of 3.1% among those who were uninterrupted. The authors stressed that they couldn’t definitively link the interruption to the error.

Researchers also observed that the risk of error varied by shift, the nurse’s experience, the nurse-to-patient ratio, and the level of patient care being provided. For example, the risk of error was higher during night shifts and among nurses with fewer than six months of PICU experience. There was also an increased risk of error for nurses caring for multiple patients when at least one patient received mechanical ventilation and arterial catheterization.

Incoming text messages were not associated with errors.

The main takeaway from the research is what you’d expect. While communication-related interruptions can’t be eliminated, interventions to reduce their frequency are crucial — and these initiatives should consider what time of day employees are working, staffing ratios, clinicians’ experience level, and patient acuity.

To prevent your phone from becoming a distraction at work, leave it out of reach while caring for patients and set it to silent mode. Consider downloading a tool that bars you from accessing distracting apps during a shift.

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