The cellular telephones and pagers that summon doctors to emergency surgery are under scrutiny at Spokane hospitals.
Health workers are eyeing common electronic devices as the culprit for interference with life-saving medical equipment.
Holy Family Hospital is asking employees to avoid cellular telephones when possible. Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children banned them.
Spokane hospital managers say they haven’t noticed life-threatening electromagnetic interference, and some believe any risk is minimal. Yet unnerving stories are traveling the medical grapevine.
The Food and Drug Administration has received more than 100 reports of electromagnetic interference.
A fetal heartbeat detector picked up local radio broadcasts instead of a baby’s heartbeat. Mobile radios are suspected of causing a man’s electric wheelchair to lurch off a cliff, seriously injuring him.
ECRI, a Pennsylvania company that helps hospitals manage equipment, collected 63 interference reports, including cellular telephones triggering false alarms in IV pumps and incubators.
Some incidents stemmed from doctors testing equipment for interference, but other cases were unexpected.
Dr. David Oakes, a Spokane cardiologist, said cauterizing equipment he uses in the operating room has caused problem interference.
“It can reprogram pacemakers or cause defibrillator to go off inappropriately,” Oakes said. “There are times when I’ve been completely flying in the dark for moments because of electromagnetic interference.”
Bob Knight, clinical engineer director at Sacred Heart Medical Center, said he believes the threat is exaggerated and that pagers and cellular telephones are more valuable than harmful.
Electromagnetic interference is the same stuff that causes radio static when someone uses a blow-dryer nearby, engineers say.
“It’s the reason they have you turn off CD players, cell phones and laptop computers when you take off or land on an airplane,” said Knight.
Among devices vulnerable to electromagnetic interference are incubators, dialysis equipment, ventilators and heart monitors.
Guy Knickerbocker, chief scientist at ECRI, recommended hospitals keep visitors with cellular telephones out of intensive care units.
“People on staff who are dependent on those devices ought to be enlightened,” Knickerbocker said.
Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children took the most drastic action in Spokane by banning cellular telephones a year ago.
Hospital workers who carry two-way radios use them only in areas without electrical equipment, said Michael Hoover, Shriners’ environmental services director.
People at the VA Medical Center in northwest Spokane soon may be told to keep cellular telephones and two-way radios away from life-support equipment, said Larry Carlson, the hospital’s biomedical engineer.
No one is certain how often electromagnetic interference occurs in hospitals. All nurses, doctors and other workers at Sacred Heart recently were given a brochure asking employees to report any occurrences.
“In the past, they may have just said, ‘My monitor just acted weird,”’ said Knight.
Cellular telephones and pagers aren’t the only potential transmitters. Televisions, personal computers, video games, baby monitors, and police and ambulance radios are other possible sources of interference.
“We rely heavily on pagers to locate staff. We need a 20-minute response from open-heart teams,” he said.
Deaconess Medical Center engineers also decided against restricting cellular telephones and other potential transmitters, said Tom Lienhard, the hospital’s mechanical engineer.
By taking away emergency pagers and cellular phones, he said, “You’re going to kill more people than you’ll help.”
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