Suspension of Seattle doctor highlights risk of "distracted doctoring"

An alarming number of doctors may use phones and other devices for personal purposes while rendering care, raising the risk of needless patient injuries.

In the last few years, most people in Redmond, Washington, have found it impossible to miss the news stories and studies focusing on distracted driving. Unfortunately, mobile devices and constant connectivity don't just raise the risk of personal injuries or wrongful deaths occurring in car accidents. Unnecessary distractions can also be deadly in a medical setting, and unfortunately, "distracted doctoring" is not as rare as many people would hope.

Dangerous habits

The issue of distracted doctoring was recently called to attention by an unusual case. According to the Washington Post, a Seattle anesthesiologist was suspended for sending sexually explicit text messages and even photographs during surgery. An investigation has turned up more than 250 messages, including 45 sent during a single procedure that lasted only 90 minutes. Although no harm to patients has been reported, the risk the doctor's patients faced is clear.

This case may be extreme, but it reflects a wider, troubling trend. American Medical News summarizes some worrisome statistics culled from various sources about doctors and distraction:

  • In 2012, four-fifths of doctors carried smartphones and roughly one-third carried tablets or iPads.
  • Physicians are interrupted about once every 12 minutes by electronic distractions, such as phone calls and emails, or human distractions.
  • Distractions and disruptions affect quality of care; for example, disrupted nurses are 12 percent more likely to make mistakes.

Research and statistics regarding this new threat are still limited. However, according to the New York Times, one study published in 2011 found that 55 percent of perfusionists, the professionals who operate heart-lung machines, talked on cellphones during cardio-pulmonary bypass surgery. According to American Medical News, the same study found that 21 percent of perfusionists texted, and another 15 percent used the Internet.

Problematically, doctors are often encouraged to use cellphones, tablets and computers to access the wealth of available patient data, according to the New York Times. On its own, this use of technology can be beneficial. However, the presence of technology introduces the risk that doctors will neglect patients and focus excessively on their electronic devices. Now that physicians can use personal devices to text, use social media or browse online, the risk is even higher.

Professional negligence

There is little research into injuries caused by distracted doctors, but anecdotes indicate that distraction can have dangerous consequences. According to the New York Times, one Colorado surgeon made errors during neurosurgery that left a patient partially paralyzed. During the procedure, the surgeon carried on at least 10 different conversations via wireless headset.

Less overtly negligent actions can also have serious consequences. According to American Medical News, one patient developed complications and eventually required open-heart surgery after remaining on a medication for too long. The resident who had been instructed to update the patient's drug order was doing so on her smartphone when she received a text about a party. After replying, she forgot to complete the drug order and discontinue use of the medication.

When a medical professional makes a needless mistake that injures a patient, he or she may be held liable. Often, medical malpractice cases hinge on a physician failing to provide a professional standard of care due to oversights, errors or even lack of relevant knowledge. However, when a doctor knowingly engages in a behavior that raises the risk of mistakes, such as sending texts or browsing online, establishing negligence may be easier.

Anyone who has been harmed by substandard care or poor decisions on the part of a medical professional should meet with an attorney to discuss seeking compensation.

Keywords: medical malpractice, surgical error, injury