Bacteria and mobile devices: A growing danger for patients?

Online and media chatter about nosocomial infections, particularly from antibiotic resistant bacteria, has been growing lately. Patient deaths in Alabama from tainted IV bags, and "killer" bacteria colonizing California hospitals are just two that have hit the headlines in the past month or so.

Now two international studies have zeroed in on the role mobile devices might play in the infection cycle. One study, published in the June issue of the American Journal of Infection Control, found that patient and visitors' cell and smartphones were 50 percent more likely to carry bacteria than healthcare workers' devices. The other, a small study by Thammasat University Hospital in Pratumthani, Thailand, noted that cleaning phones with alcohol-based wipes went a long way toward controlling contamination.

I checked in with some infection control officers at U.S. hospitals to get some tips on handling the infection risk associated with mobile devices. Their big message: Make mobile devices a big part of your educational program for patients, family members and other visitors.

You're probably already reminded them to wash their hands when they enter the patient's room, or after they've eaten. But you may not have put mobile devices at the top of the handwashing priority list, Marc-Oliver Wright, IC director for NorthShore University HealthSystem, outside Chicago, tells FierceMobileHealthcare.

You don't necessarily need to revamp your infection control policies just to target mobile devices. Instead, try crafting a marketing or educational campaign around the ubiquitous gadgets, he suggests. "You could make it fun," he says. He joked about creating a mobile-savvy tagline like "before you update your [Facebook] status, wipe your screen."

One key issue to remember, though, is that the device isn't the true culprit, he notes. A smartphone or iPad is no more dangerous a vector than the Walkmans of the 1980s or other technology. The danger lies in patients or visitors touching the device and not cleaning their hands before touching the patient.

Marcia Patrick, infection prevention director for MultiCare Health System in Tacoma, Wash., posits that that healthcare workers' phones were less contaminated for exactly this reason. Healthcare workers "are better at cleaning their hands than patients or visitors. As long as healthcare workers perform hand hygiene, either washing or using an alcohol-based hand rub, germs [from mobile devices] shouldn't get to the patient. Visitors are another matter. We encourage visitors to clean their hands when they come to the hospital, but not their phones. This may be something we'll have to look at as a potential source of resistant bacteria in healthcare," Patrick tells FierceMobileHealthcare.

Of course, that doesn't mean clinicians couldn't stand a few reminders, too. "I must say, after reading the study I immediately got a disinfectant wipe and wiped down my phone!" she quips.

One critical item remains to be uncovered here--technology-safe disinfectant products--Wright notes. Many anti-bacterial products use bleach, which can damage sensitive electronics or screens. And some disinfecting agents don't kill all bacteria. For example, alcohol doesn't affect clostridium difficile. It will be an important part of any hygiene campaign--telling patients and visitors which products to use for cleaning their devices, he notes.

Turkish researchers went one step further, saying that hospitals may simply have to restrict use of cell phones and other devices in certain high-risk units.

What do you think? Should hospitals and other healthcare facilities ban patient/visitor use of mobile devices? Or, do you see these reports, as well as the World Health Organization's well-chronicled report concerning cell phones and cancer, as part of a 'sky is falling' mentality? - Sara