Smartphones increase interruptions, unprofessional behavior, docs say

Wondering how much your clinicians use their smartphones? Nurses use mobile email about three times as much as physicians, sending 22 messages in an average 24-hour period. Physicians receive about 22 messages per day, but send just under seven, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

The study, which evaluated smartphone use in the inpatient setting, found it generally improved communications between physicians and nurses, and improved mobility for residents. Researchers at Canada's University Health Network in Toronto studied a total of eight medical teams using assigned BlackBerry devices at two urban teaching hospitals, and tracked a total of more than 12,000 emails and 13,000 phone calls from residents alone.

Nurses, in particular, seemed to find smartphones improved their ability to get responses from physicians. Authors note that nurses:

  • Didn't have to wait for return phone calls--typical of paging systems--and often got faster responses and increased accessibility to physicians.
  • Found emails helped to convey their patient's status quickly and efficiently to doctors.
  • Wasted less time locating a specific physician.
  • Obtained immediate contact with physicians for urgent issues.

The picture isn't completely rosy, though. Providers indicate the technology increases interruptions and can cause problems because not all users have the same definition for an "urgent" message. Physicians who didn't agree that an incoming message was urgent didn't respond immediately, despite the sender having marked it as such. In many cases, nurses reacted by resending the message multiple times.

The technology also had a cooling effect on interpersonal relationships in some cases. Nurses, in particular, say that getting more text messages from doctors means they get less face-to-face interaction, although physicians didn't perceive the same problem.

Attending physicians, however, were concerned about the five to seven interruptions per hour that they and their residents received on their smartphones during rounds and team meetings, the data shows.

Attending physicians also complained that residents often were unprofessional in their use of the device. Residents took calls during patient procedures, answered messages during rounds, and interrupted clinical consultations to read or respond to messages, the study's authors reported.

But those habits may not be confined to medical residents for long. A study earlier this summer in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing found that obsessive checking of emails and text messages is on the rise. The average user checked his or her phone 34 times per day--a little less than twice per hour. Some even admitted to having developed a "checking habit" that could be as often as every 10 minutes.

To learn more:
- read the JMIR study
- check out CNN's coverage of the smartphone habit study