Judgment Call: Smartphone Use in Hospitals Requires Smart Policies

October 1, 2012 | Evaluations & Guidance


Smartphones are an increasing presence in the healthcare environment. They can be used to enhance communications among caregivers, provide quick access to clinical guidance materials and tools, and otherwise facilitate patient care in a rapidly growing number of ways. For patients and visitors, the ability to use smartphones—or even traditional cell phones—during a hospital stay can be both a source of comfort and a convenience, helping them stay in contact with loved ones and allowing continued participation in their normal lives, factors that can promote patient satisfaction.

So what are the downsides of these powerful devices? Unfortunately, in the hospital environment there are many—and chief information officers (CIOs), IT directors, clinical engineers, and risk managers must institute policies to address the dangers.

With great power comes great responsibility. The very characteristics that make smartphones such a powerful tool for users—their portability, computing power, and ability to access information—make them a source of great concern for the healthcare enterprise. If they aren’t used with care, private patient information can be exposed; computer viruses or other malware can be introduced; clinical decisions can be affected by alerts or other pertinent details that are missed or overlooked (e.g., because of display limitations); or caregivers can simply become distracted. Additionally, both the nonstandardized nature of these devices and the rapid generational changes in devices and platforms present significant challenges for those responsible for managing their use.

Ideally, a healthcare facility would be able to research and develop the best approaches to smartphone use before the devices make their way into the hospital environment. But, as the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) points out in a white paper issued by its Mobile Security Work Group, “Employees are not waiting for guidance to be provided. Instead, they are starting to use mobile computing devices for work, whether or not their employers know or approve of the use” (HIMSS 2011).

Of course, many patients and visitors will also want to use their smartphones while at the healthcare facility. Plus, the use of smartphones by independent physicians is continuing to increase. A 2012 survey conducted by a market research and services firm found that 85% of U.S. physicians currently own or professionally use a smartphone (Manhattan Research 2012).

Given that the technology has become ubiquitous, an outright ban on smartphone use would likely be impractical—and possibly even counterproductive, as these devices offer many legitimate benefits. But effective policies regarding smartphone use are essential to protect the healthcare facility’s systems, to safeguard patient privacy, and to ensure the delivery of quality care. Put simply, smartphone users need to know how to apply the technology responsibly in the healthcare setting, and technology managers need to develop and implement policies to minimize the risks. The success of such policies will depend on support from key leadership and cooperation...

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