In Hospital, Hold the Cell Phone Calls

Mobile Phones Can Addle Electrical Equipment, Study Shows

If you’re headed for the hospital, you might want to leave your cell phone at home.

Under certain circumstances, mobile telephones can play havoc with sophisticated heart and lung equipment, Minnesota researchers say.

Several years ago, Dr. David Hayes and his colleagues at the Mayo Clinic showed mobile phones could trip up pacemakers when held close to the chest. Now they’ve found portable phones may also interfere with heart and lung monitoring devices. And they can even shut off mechanical ventilators with their signals.

A report on the findings appears in this month’s issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

The Mayo researchers tested the effect of six cell phones, both digital and analog, on 17 pieces of medical electronic equipment commonly found in an intensive care unit. Seven, or 41 percent, of the devices showed some measure of interference from the telephones in 54 percent of the 526 separate tests.

For example, when phones were held near monitors for an electrocardiogram (EKG), they created “noise” in the waves that trace heartbeats. The researchers were also able to shut off a mechanical ventilator by putting cell phones within 2 inches of a back panel, says Jeff Tri, a co-author of the study.

In all, researchers found “significant” interference in only 7 percent of the tests. The effect of the electrical signals fell off with distance, and was most intense within an inch or two of the equipment. However, they did record interference on the EKG when a mobile phone was held nearly 3 feet from the machine.

Still, the authors write, the study is inconclusive enough that it shouldn’t become the basis for hospital policy on the use of mobile phones. What’s more, they note, as long as the phones are kept at least 5 feet from electrical equipment in a patient’s room or a nursing station, “it is unlikely that any serious malfunction would occur.”

Many hospitals already forbid the use of cell phones in areas with sensitive electrical equipment such as surgery wards or intensive care units. And some are even more restrictive.

“At Mayo, we’ve made the decision that where invasive procedures are being done, cell phones should be turned off,” says Tri. Yet Mayo allows patients and employees to use mobile phones in other parts of the hospital.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” says Alan Bernstein, a former technical director of the pacemaker center at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center who has studied the effect of cell phones on pacemakers.

Pacemakers are similar to EKGs, so it’s not surprising that interference from a phone might happen with both, he says. Indeed, pacemakers themselves have been known to addle EKG monitors through “cross-talk,” he adds.

Bernstein, who teaches a course for the American College of Cardiology on the workings of pacemakers, says although fuzzy data on an EKG isn’t necessarily dangerous, the foreign pulses of a cell phone can cause pacemakers to skip beats.

However, says Bernstein: “I’ve never heard of any indication that a cell phone could harm a heart without a pacemaker.”

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