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Hospitals Hang Up Cellular Telephones Wireless Instruments Can Gum Up Medical Equipment

Code blue: cardiac arrest! Doctors and nurses sprint into the hospital room - and grind to a breathless halt.

The patient is lolling in bed, in the throes of nothing worse than a killer crossword puzzle. His big-shot brother-in-law is chattering away with the home office on his cellular phone.

False alarm. Blame it on cellular interference.

A growing number of hospitals are limiting use of cellular telephones and other wireless communications for fear of such scenarios - or worse.

The industry, meanwhile, is seeking ways to keep phone signals from gumming up the electronics of life-saving equipment. It wants to ensure that electromagnetic interference doesn’t threaten doctors’ growing use of cell phones.

In a series of interviews, hospital, industry and government officials said they didn’t know of any patient injuries from cell phone interference, though many acknowledged the risk. In most cases, they said such interference amounts to a slight false reading here, a false alarm there without harm to anyone.

Interference can occur only when activated cellular phones come within a few feet of the medical equipment. The phones’ radio signals can confuse the circuitry.

“Not very often is it something that’s life-threatening. A lot of times it’s something that causes somebody to raise an eyebrow,” said Guy Knickerbocker, chief scientist at ECRI of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., a company that helps hospitals manage their high-tech equipment.

He said that since 1991, the company has collected 61 reports of such interference from around the country. They include reports of cell phone interference that created false alarms in IV pumps and incubators.

The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations, the main hospital accrediting agency, collects no figures on how many hospitals limit cellular phone use.

However, at Holyoke Hospital, officials last August banned the use of cellular phones.

Clark Fenn, chief of risk management for the hospital, said he was alerted by industry literature about the possibility of interference involving such equipment as brain and heart monitors, respirators, IV pumps, and kidney dialysis machines.

But he added: “What got my attention is walking into the emergency department and having a patient’s family member standing at the end of the bed talking on a cellular phone.”

The hospital has also banned use of two-way radios, which are widely used by ambulance personnel, police and firefighters.


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