Mobile Phones and Hospitals

If you walk into most hospitals in Northern Ireland you will see large signs prohibiting the use of mobile phones. If you attempt to use one near a patient you are very likely to get in trouble with the nursing staff. Elenwë had to secretly use her phone when in for the birth of both our children.However, if you spend time in hospitals you will notice that, although the junior doctors have “bleeps”, the more senior one such as Registrars and Consultants have none. They can often be seen being rung, issuing advice and generally talking on their mobile phones.

In view of the dread warnings regarding the dangers of mobile phones one might suspect that these senior doctors are putting their patients in danger. However, if one looks up this issue on the British Medical Journal website one sees a rather different position. In 2003 they suggested allowing them at least in non clinical areas.

In 2006 there position was even more liberal.

Even the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency are relatively relaxed on the subject.

Some doctors seem to think the whole ban is unnecessary which rather ties in with my observations above.

So where is this going you may ask?

Well patients may be banned from having mobile phones but many have phones (and televisions) by their bedside. This service is provided by a particularly enlightened and altruistic organisation called Patientline. Unfortunately Patientline seem to feel that it is fine to charge more to ring your loved one in say the Royal than a loved one in Europe. Despite this they still seem to be loosing money; something I have to say I find difficult to be distressed about. In addition Patientline provide televisions at a not inconsiderable cost to the patient. This has coincided with the removal of the television found in each ward / bay. Also should you wish to bring in your own television that is not allowed as hospital engineers have to check it. Funnily there seems less concern about other things such as DVD players or computers, which of course Patientline do not supply.

This all sounds like a bit of a rip off. If mobile phones are a nuisance they should obviously be stopped. This should not, however, be done when they are not a nuisance and there is little reason to stop patients leaving theirs on. Presumably patients would have the wit to stop talking when a doctor or nurse is working with them, but of course the same applies to a Patientline phone. The dangerousness of every ones’ home televisions is also rather difficult to believe in.

  • joeCanuck

    The hospitals are obviously getting a large kick back from the company in return for their monopoly. That’s why the companies need to charge so much and why they can lose money (unless they are fiddling the figures to avoid having to pay taxes – and I wouldn’t suggest that for a moment).
    It’s also why the hospital quite happily lies about the supposed danger from bringing in your own TV.
    Two corrupt? companies colluding to fix prices? Sounds like a criminal conspiracy to me. Does N.I. have a Monopolies Commission?

  • Rory

    I am afraid, Turgon that your above essay smacks rather too much of a form of nimbyism faintly disquised as tightly controlled moral outrage.

    The news we have of the potential harmful effects of the use of mobile ‘phones is limited, confusing and often contradictatory and currently leans towards a “probably not harmful – but just in case…” position. But that contains an ambivalence of certainty that at least indicates that there might well be a risk to health that we are simply presently unable to evaluate. For that good reason alone medical staff, it would appear to me at least, have not only the right but also the duty to prohibit their use in an environment of healing.

    I am absolutely passionately addicted to nicotine but altough I don’t like the ban on smoking in hospitals (and there have been more than a few hospitals in my decrepit recent years) I do understand and respect the motivation for it.

    It is true that recent research indicates that there is a small to negative harmful effect on the function of other electronic devises caused by nearby operation of these ‘phones and I too suspect that the profits to be earned from the rental of mainline trolley-‘phones to patients weighs more heavily than any absorption of this new evidence. But that remains only my surmise.

    And what the hell? Who actually needs a mobile ‘phone in hospital? This is a place for rest and healing to which process time for quiet meditation can only add support.

    Now if only they had a smoking lounge…maybe even with a bar? No? Is that too much to ask? “I’m an old man”, I scream, “I haven’t got long to go – why can’t I have a few harmless pleasures before I pop me clogs?” But do they listen to me? You bet your sweet bippy they don’t.

  • esmereldavillalobos

    Presumably patients would have the wit to stop talking when a doctor or nurse is working with them

    You would think, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately not all of our punters have that sense of social etiquette.

    Otherwise Turgon, I think the vast majority of medics have no problems with mobile phones being used on wards (apart from ICU perhaps) and couldn’t care less about Patientline.

  • McGrath

    Etiquette often gets left at the door when entering a hospital. Patients and visitors dont know when its appropriate to use a mobile, and staff dont want their routine disturbed by use of a mobile. That’s all there is to it. There is no health risk in using a mobile phone other than pissing someone else off. Its their hospital, their rules.

  • New Yorker


    Good post. We have the same racket in our hospitals in the US. Somebody is making money off of patients. There should be investigations into such corruption. Some ambitious politicians should make a cause of this and expose all those who are involved.

  • You’re quite right – the hospitals do get an enormous kickback from patientline, and protray the use of mobile phones as “potentially interfering with medical equipment”.

    The reality is that before any piece of medical equipment can be approved for use, it has to undergo intensive testing, of which a major part is for screening against external radio interference. All equipment is designed to eliminate this basically using the housing as a Faraday cage (any 13 year old schoolboy/girl knows about this). The manufacturer is then awared a compliance certificate, and all equipment carries the certificate number.

    Therefore, there is NO ‘danger’ from mobile phones.

    Also, remember that many hospitals carry mobile phone masts on their rooves, for which they get a substantial rent from the carriers. These masts generate many times the EMR than a single mobile phone ever could.

    Now, compare this with a hospital which provides ‘normal’ phones in the rooms and not those provided by Patientline, lets see, the Ulster Independent Clinic. Mobile phones? No problem. (you’d think they’d be more money oriented than the NHS, wouldn’t you)

    Actually, try using your own TV in the Royal, instead of paying for a Patientline card. Even if it’s battery powered, you’re not allowed to use it…..

  • Rory

    Okay, guys, you’ve won me over by force of argument. “Let the people use their mobile ‘phones!” shall be my new war cry.

  • What

    Despite this they still seem to be loosing money;

    I don’t understand this part of the post how can you loose money?

  • BfB

    I’ve been implementing wireless technology in hospitals, airports, business’s since it was new. There is more wireless communications in a hospital than in some war zones. Most doctors prescribe medicine, record diagnostic info, from their Blackberry, and will forget what their doing if a call from the honey comes in. The only danger with cellphones in a hospital is the fistfights they cause in the various waiting rooms. I had to get in between two patients waiting for radiation treatment, because one was miffed about the other talking on the cell. These poor people were hardly standing! The hospital managers do not want the cell phone craziness of the public to intrude on the basic functions of the staff. The cell usage of the doctors, medics, police, etc, etc. are disruptive enough. I’ve seen some pretty ugly emergency room scenes over someone wanting to answer their cell phone. The use of the resident phone system to overcharge patients is a revenue source that no hospital will give up.

  • Animus

    There is some risk to equipment – I saw a man using a mobile near a machine monitoring his wife’s pregnancy and it did interrupt the signal. He could easily have gone to the corridor. I think Patientline is a total rip off, but those of you – Stephen Barnes – who say that it doesn’t interfere with any equipment are mistaken.

    But on the wards and other areas of the hospital, I think there should be more discretion to allow people to use the phone. Not everyone is in hospital recovering and resting. Some people are in because the Trust hasn’t worked on a package to send them home. I used to phone a friend in hospital and it cost us an absolute fortune, plus someone had to wheel the phone down to her. When my son was born, I surreptitiously texted people. The Patientline people came round every day to find out why I hadn’t taken up the service.

  • joeCanuck

    Maybe BfB can shed some light but how do you know, Animus, that it was the man’s phone that affected the machine and not something else, a random votage spike or whatever?

  • Animus: OK, point taken that there can be interferance with equipment; but if it’s certified and approved, then only faulty equipment would be susceptable (and only *VERY* faulty equipment at that – it’s so simple to stop EMR interference that even Zoe Salmon could do it)

    Having worked in hospitals testing medical equipment for interference from RFI there is NO chance of interference with **properly shielded** and certified equipment. If a hospital wants to cut costs and go with cheap equipment which hasn’t had such testing, then that’s up to it, but even a radio puts out as much EMR as a GSM phone, and they don’t ban patients from listening to their own radios, do they?

    You seemed to have ignored my point about hospitals renting out their roofs for mobile phone masts pumping out 20-25kW of EMR.

    What about consultants who regularly use mobiles on ward rounds? (I’ve worked with enough of them to know that they’re addicted to their mobiles) Are their phones somehow ‘different’ and don’t generate EMR?

    What about their Pagers? are they shielded and leak no EMR?

    Most hospitals are only interested in balancing the books.


  • BfB

    Mr. Barnes is correct. All equip is certified and compliant with all FCC requirements. We also have the big HIPAA federal compliance law, that pervades all the IT structures of US healthcare. In order to comply, extensive testing and acceptance is required for every tiny bit of the electronic record arena. It was a bit dodgy in the beginning, but the technology is mature now. I have used an easily applied wall coating that excludes cell phone signals in certain areas. It was requested for an area where hospital management could not get certain medical personnel to comply with a no cellphone area, really.
    The more dangerous offenders are the pharmaceutical salespeople who barge about the hospital with monster mobile frankensteins causing all the wireless security traps to go bonkers. Then handing out ‘loaners’ to any doctor they are targeting for monster drug sales. Try and get these obscenely rich, thirty something, primos to give up their toy…… The up side is I get paid by the hour ;-$

    Hospital admin budgets are starved, while the smarmy doctors are stealing everything but the toilet paper. And guess who is the revenue source?

  • Animus

    Stephen I didn’t ignore your point. (Did you read the whole post or just the first couple of sentences?) I agree that phones should be used with discretion – that includes doctors and patients. I only wanted to highlight that it’s not quite correct to say that NO equipment will experience interference.

    Joe – do you know the little sound you can hear right before a mobile goes off, often through a radio? It was pretty obvious that it was the phone. I am not saying that this tosser using his phone would be damaging just that it interfered with the reading.

  • joeCanuck

    Fair enough, Animus.

  • esmereldavillalobos

    “…smarmy doctors are stealing everything but the toilet paper.”

    Most doctors prescribe medicine, record diagnostic info, from their Blackberry, and will forget what their doing if a call from the honey comes in.”


    Smarmy doctor and alleged thief here! Care to elaborate or provide some evidence or is that just a large plank unbalancing your shoulders? Maybe a simple clarification that it is the wonderful US healthcare “system” that you are adressing in your post may suffice to assuage my umbrage taken at your generalisations.

    Yes, hospitals are full of wireless equipment and as I have already addressed in post 3, most medics have absolutely no problem with patients using their mobiles in a discreet manner. As an ED doc, we don’t have Patientline in our department anyway (not enough money to be made) and so mobile use is widespread. The issues arise with mobile phones and confidentiality – most phones these days have some form of AV recording equipment and it would be a gross breach of confidentiality for some amateur Lord Lichfield with nothing better to do to go around photographing what he saw (or who he saw) in the ED that day without consent. Therefore their use should be restricted to non-clinical areas and that includes wards, I’m afraid. The DH guidance on mobile phone usage from 2007 is a not unreasonable document and addresses the issues quite comprehensively.

    Must go now, have to leave resus to take a call from my “honey” and I can’t concentrate – men can’t multitask after all.

  • BfB

    Self admitted smarmy doctor and alleged thief.

    Sorry, I’m only typing from my experiences. If you associate with only the good guys and are unaware of any operational malfeasance, then fair play to you.
    I try not to advise the doctors on their profession. They never seem to get that whole concept, being smarmy and all. Oh, and there is that whole ‘I’m the smartest mother **cker in the room’ thing they seem to be so good at. Not that that’s a bad thing. After all, I get paid by the hour….I’ll listen to anyone’s bulls**it on my rate. Even doctors. ;-$