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Hospitals might soon begin to take down their “No Cell Phones” signs in light of a recent study conducted by members of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

In a report published in this month’s edition of Anesthesiology and Analgesia, Yale professor of anesthesiology Dr. Keith Ruskin and Roy Soto, a professor of anesthesiology at State University of New York, Stony Brook, concluded that the minimal risk of cell phones interfering with the electromagnetic radiation of hospital equipment is far outweighed by the reduction in communication errors that would result from the switch to cell phone use from more traditional paging systems.

“I think that we’re calling attention to the fact that communication is an issue in patient safety,” said Ruskin, who also chairs the ASA Committee on Electronic Media and Information. “Pretty much anyone you talk to anecdotally will tell you they’ve missed a page or two. It’s something that everyone knows about, but at the same time, a lot of people haven’t looked at. And we’ve looked at it and found a solution that is already in place because everyone already has a mobile phone.”

Ruskin and Soto collected the study’s data through a survey of fellow anesthesiologists at the 2003 national meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. The study concluded that of the 4,018 responses, 40 percent of respondents who used paging systems reported frequent communication delays, whereas only 31 percent of respondents who used cell phones described such difficulties.

“We looked at the difference between communication errors amongst physicians who use pagers versus those who use cell phones, and it turned out that the incidence of communication delays was much less for those doctors who use cell phones as a reliable tow-away form of communication,” Soto said.

Soto said the one-way paging system is obsolete, especially in hospitals, where effective communication is a necessity.

But Ruskin said cellular reception in operating rooms can be limited because the rooms are often buried deep within the interior of hospital buildings. A solution to such a problem, he said, would be to install mobile base stations inside the hospital, which would also allow hospital technology staff to minimize electromagnetic interference by managing the stations themselves.

Ruskin said the chance of electromagnetic interference from cell phone use is extremely low anyway. He said that issues of interference only arise with older, analog phones and older hospital equipment. Ruskin said that even ECR, a nonprofit organization formerly called the Emergency Care Research Institute, has recommended that cell phones be used in cases where communication is important.

But Dr. Cyrus Kapadia, who heads the residency training program for internal medicine at the School of Medicine, said he is not convinced that communication delays attributed to paging systems are significantly worse than communication errors associated with cell phone use.

“The pager system would only cause a delay if the page goes to the wrong person,” Kapadia said. “If you don’t know who to page, that occasionally happens, but this can happen with cell phones as well. Thinking broadly, I’m wondering if these problems would disappear with the use of cell phones.”

And while Kapadia also said the use of cell phones within hospital facilities is becoming less and less of a risk, he said Yale-New Haven and other area hospitals are not yet considering replacing their paging system with cell phones.

Both Ruskin and Soto said they hope their research leads to changes beyond anesthesiology. Soto said he has already received four e-mails from physicians in the United States and in Canada expressing their support for the study’s recommendations.

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