Volume 13, Number 18  May 19, 2006

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Cellphone study suggests new ICU policy

By Silas Polkinghorne

It may be time to revisit the complete ban on cellular phones in intensive care units, says a study by two internal medicine residents at the U of S.

Studies in previous years have shown cell phones could interfere with hospital equipment, resulting in widespread banning of cellphones in Intensive Care Units (ICUs).  Dr. Pierre Nel and Dr. Bao Dang’s research, carried out in July with the help of a SaskTel engineer, examined whether current cellphones – which use lower-powered outputs than earlier models – would still disrupt ventilators used in the Saskatoon Health Region.

The study found that cellphones did not cause disruption at a distance of greater than one metre from the ventilators.

“We would certainly like to see (the cell phone policy) revisited,” said Nel. “(We) think if there could be, perhaps, a line drawn or instructions given to patients and family where they could or could not use it, that could greatly serve to improve the communication of family at times of need as well as allowing physicians to use their mobile devices in the intensive care.”

The study employed a range of ventilators used in the health district and also tested several cellphones using different technologies. The phones were tested while they idle, while powering up, while in talking mode, and at three distances – right next to the ventilator device, 50 centimetres away, and one metre away.

Some of the phones did cause severe ventilator disruptions, with most of the problems occurring at zero metres. As well, the problems sometimes continued when the cellphone was removed. One walkie-talkie device was even able to shut down a ventilator.

But if used at a distance of greater than one metre, the cellphones should be safe, Nel said.  He noted it is difficult to apply the results in other jurisdictions because they may use different ventilators. As well, ICUs house other equipment that could be disrupted by phones, Nel said, and more research is needed.

According to Saskatoon Health Region spokesperson Kerilyn Voigt, officials are aware that newer phones don’t typically interfere with hospital equipment. But, she says, there are no plans to lift cellphone bans because older phones are still in use.

“It’s important for us to err on the side of caution on this one,” she said.

Dang presented data from the study in poster format in San Francisco recently at the annual meeting of the Society of Critical Care Medicine, and both Nel and Dang were to present their findings last week at the Department of Internal Medicine’s research day.

Silas Polkinghorne is a Saskatoon freelance writer.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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