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Another Downside to Cell Phones?

Doctors', Nurses' Cell Phones May Harbor Bacteria Lethal to Ill Patients

WebMD Health News

Sept. 15, 2003 (Chicago) -- Sure, it's great that your doctor has a cell phone if, say, you need him on a Saturday afternoon because your birth control prescription ran out or your son's ear infection still hasn't cleared up, but his accessibility may have a marked downside when it comes to patient care.

New research presented Monday at the 43rd annual Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in Chicago shows that cell phones can harbor Acinetobacter baumannii, a stubborn bacterium that can become resistant to almost any of the available antibiotics and can survive on inanimate objects -- such as cell phones -- for long periods of time. The bacteria can be passed to patients from the staff who carry cell phones.

In the study, Israeli researchers cultured bacteria found on the hands and cell phones of 124 employees at Soroka University Medical center in Beer-Sheva, Israel, including 71 doctors and 53 nurses. They found acinetobacter on 12% of cell phones and 24% of hands. Moreover, 10% were able to withstand even the toughest antibiotic.

"It wasn't that surprising," lead researcher Jacob Gilad, MD, an investigator in the infection control unit of Soraka University Medical Center in Beer-Sheva, Israel, tells WebMD. But it is "alarming."

He says that "we had a feeling [that we would find this] because of the intensive use of cell phones by physicians at our institution and other institutions worldwide."

Acinetobacter baumannii is lethal mostly to sick patients, he says. "The odds that healthy people will contract and develop sickness [from this bacteria] is slight," but "for the critically ill or immunocompromised it can be lethal."

What's the Solution?

Banning cell phones in hospitals "should be an administrative decision. If you think they pose an imminent danger to patients and maybe even staff, then they should be banned during work." But he notes, "it's difficult to enforce." For instance, cell phone use was banned at Gilad's hospital during the study period. "Many hospitals ban cell phone use because of the fear that they interfere with monitors or pacemakers, so this research is another facet of hazards linked to cell phones."

"You can use cell phones if you use simple measures like hand washing before and after cell phone use just as you wash your hands before and after taking care of patients," he suggests.

But that is much easier said then done, says Donald Low, MD, chief of the department of microbiology at the University of Toronto and Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital in Canada.

"I don't know what it is about doctors," he says. But "health-care orders continue to be negligent about hand washing."

In fact, several studies have shown that most doctors and nurses believe they wash their hands correctly; however, researchers have observed that their techniques are inadequate.

"During the SARs epidemic in Toronto, I had two cell phones and was seeing patients in my gown and gloved, and my cell phone would ring and my natural tendency was to answer it," he says.

Cell phones also get a bad rap outside of the health-care setting.

In 1997, The New England Journal of Medicine reported that motorists who use cell phones are four times more likely to crash and equated their use with drunken driving. What's more, some studies have suggested they can raise the risk of brain cancer and dementia.

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