Mobile Devices in Hospitals: Combating Contamination

ESO Staff

While cell phones and mobile devices are an ubiquitous part of life for health care providers – both on and off the job – more research is being conducted into how these devices might be negatively impacting patients, specifically in regards to healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) and even cross-contamination between patients. 

While it can be assumed that the majority of physicians, nurses, and other hospital staff own and regularly use personal cell phones on a daily basis, more and more health care providers are also now using hospital-issued mobile handheld devices (MHDs) such as tablets and phones in their daily routines. In fact, a recent survey by the Nursing Research Council (NRC) established that around 50-60% of respondents use these devices during their shifts. While these technologies increase efficiencies and make it easier to stay connected to other staff and patients, the devices also are being associated with a spread of contaminants, from both the health care providers’ hands and between patients.  

According to the NRC, in the United States, 5% to 10% of patients are affected by HAIs each year, resulting in 99,000 deaths and an estimated $20 billion in healthcare costs. The NRC is one of several groups undertaking research projects to not only test the hypothesis of MHDs as bacteria-carriers, focusing also on the best ways to prevent the spread of contaminants and the best cleaning procedures. During the NRC study, researchers found that 73.7% of the MHDs tested were colonized with bacteria, and that 100% of the contamination found on MHDs was also on hospital care workers’ hands, indicating MHDs can be the source of nosocomial pathogens. 

Additionally, researchers from other organizations have been evaluating how cell phones brought in by patients also introduce bacteria into the hospital setting. A study in 2011 found that 84.3% of patients’ mobile phone swabbed during a survey were positive for microbial contamination. Today it is more common than ever for patients to have and use their phones during a hospital stay, and researchers stress that hospitals should ensure that patients be educated about guidelines of using mobile phones, regular disinfection of their mobile phones, hand hygiene, and be advised not to share mobile phones with other people. 

When it comes to cleaning and decontaminating personal cell phones and hospital MHDs, the process can be a bit more difficult since there is some potential for damaging the device and its screen quality by using the incorrect techniques or chemicals.  

However, more and more work is being done in the marketplace to create tools for decontamination, such as enclosed ultraviolet-C (UV-C) radiation devices designed to decontaminate fomites such as phones and MHDs. Using a conveyor belt, the device passes the phone or MHD in close proximity to UV-C. Researchers are finding that this technique is effective in rapidly reducing MRSA, and to a lesser degree, C difficile spores, in a laboratory testing, suggesting that the UV-C device may provide a useful no-touch option for rapid and effective disinfection. 

The NRC study concluded with additional “common sense” recommendations that can be easily incorporated into daily shifts to help reduce the risk of bacterial growth and cross contamination. For example: 

  • Using a waterproof/resistant, nonporous, hard or soft case for the MHD and provider cell phones. 
  • Disinfection of the MHD before and after patient/family interface with an approved disinfectant as per facility policy for noncritical items. The NRC study tested several techniques and recommends he disinfection technique of 70% isopropyl alcohol and 15 seconds of friction. 
  • Setting an alarm on the MHD to remind user to disinfect regularly in addition to the before and after patient/family interface disinfection (for ex-ample, daily, hourly) 
  • Hand hygiene as per facility policy for patient interaction and after disinfecting the MHD 

The use of MHDs will undoubtedly continue to grow in the years to come, as well as the use of mobile devices by patients and providers. By remaining vigilant in disinfection best practices and avoiding cross contamination, hospitals can help prevent unnecessary spread of infections and get their patients to better outcomes more efficiently and effectively.

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