Digital Diet

It’s been said that losing weight is much harder than kicking cigarettes or alcohol. After all, because one doesn’t need to smoke or drink, the offending substances can simply be kept out of sight (if not out of mind). Dieting, on the other hands, involves changing the way a person does something we all must do everyday.

It’s no surprise, then, that reports of problematic doctor interactions with social media are popping up with metronomic regularity. When it comes to the smorgasbord of information coursing through those Internet tubes, increasingly, we all have to eat. And that makes drawing boundaries a challenge.

While most early reports on the perils of social media concerned inappropriate postings by physicians, a new hazard has emerged recently: digital distraction. On WebM&M, the AHRQ-sponsored online patient safety journal that I edit, we recently presented a case in which a resident was asked by her attending to discontinue a patient’s Coumadin. As she turned to her smart phone to enter the order, she was pinged with an invitation to a party. By the time she had RSVPed, she had forgotten about the blood thinner – and neglected to stop it. The patient suffered a near-fatal pericardial hemorrhage.

In a commentary accompanying the case, the impossibly energetic John Halamka, ED doctor and Harvard’s Chief Information Officer, described all of the things that his hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, is considering to address this issue. It’s not easy: whereas the hospital owns the Electronic Health Record and can manage access to it, the vast majority of mobile devices in the hospital today – at BI and everywhere else – are the personal property of the users. So Halamka is testing various policies to place some digital distance between the personal and professional, including blocking personal email and certain social networking sites while on duty. He’s even investigating the possibility of issuing docs and nurses hospital-owned mobile devices at the start of shifts, collecting them at the end.

But he knows he’s swimming against a powerful tide. “The consumer technology industry is bringing more tech to doctor hands faster than policy can be made,” Halamka said in an interview with Kaiser Health News. It may be that blocking people’s access to their Facebook feeds is as futile in Boston as it is in Beijing. Information will find a way out, particularly when people are as addicted to it – and the little Dopamine squirts that cheer our brains after every incoming message – as they are.

Of course, the patient safety challenges posed by distractions are not new, nor are they exclusively electronic. One time-motion study of nurses found an average of 1.2 interruptions (by people, not electrons) during every medication pass. Another study found that every interruption during the medication preparation and administration process was associated with a 12 percent increase in clinical errors. Some have even argued that these personal interruptions and distractions are more challenging than e-interruptions. Henry Feldman, a hospitalist and informatics expert at Beth Israel, recently made this point. “Unlike my mobile technology, which I can shut off and not pay attention to, I can’t not pay attention to the nurse who’s directly in front of me,” he said in an interview. “Shutting off the nurses is a quick career-ending move around here.”

While Feldman is undoubtedly right about dissing the nurses, I don’t buy his overall thesis. Humans have the capacity to see that a colleague is busy or trying to concentrate, and most – all right, some – will pipe down until the task is done. But Facebook updates and email incomings neither know nor care that you’re writing for chemo or d/cing an anticoagulant. As family physician Caroline Wellbery wrote in this week’s JAMA, “… the computer is a sort of enchanting – and ever-distracting – mistress to the plain and stolid wife of… physician-patient conventions. We are in the process of working out an open marriage that will allow seamless incorporation of technology into our daily professional lives.”

How do we do this? Aviation has the concept of the “sterile cockpit” – cockpit crews are prohibited from engaging in anything but mission-critical conversation when the airplane’s altitude is below 10,000 feet. This concept is being adapted to medical practice, and early results are promising. One hospital gave nurses a protected hour – during which they were not to be disturbed by telephone calls or pages – and saw fewer medication errors. Another put red tape on the floor to establish a “ No Interruption Zone” for nurses performing mission-critical tasks. This too led to fewer interruptions and improved medication safety. Granted, these fixes don’t solve the problem of the “open marriage” between our e-toys and us entirely, but they do illustrate that we are starting to take the problem of distractions seriously.

Can we legislate ourselves out of the digital distractions problem? I doubt it. It seems to me that virtually any highly restrictive solution is likely to be plagued by workarounds. My parents didn’t allow me to listen to Mets games after bedtime on school nights, but I managed to sneak my transistor radio into my pillow and plug in an earphone (sorry, mom). So too will it be if we try to block our workers from their Internets.

The solution will come from some thoughtful rules (let’s start with no texting or surfing during procedures or while giving anesthesia) and a vigorous call to professionalism. Healthcare providers need to be educated about the hazards of ubiquitous connectivity, and it must become second nature to log off or put away the smart phone during a complex task. My UCSF colleague Ryan Greysen has written about the hazards of physicians interacting with social media, calling for “online professionalism,” mostly in response to reports of inappropriate postings and interactions on the web. The boundaries of this professionalism need to be extended to avoiding web-based distractions.

Laws that ban texting while driving haven’t completely solved the problem, but the combination of such laws and changing social standards (even my kids now know that texting while driving is “not cool”) are making a difference. It is time for a similar approach to digital distractions. While it would be too much to ask physicians to give up their digital food entirely, the time is right for a digital diet.

Robert Wachter, MD, professor of medicine at UCSF, is widely regarded as a leading figure in the patient safety and quality movements. He edits the federal government’s two leading safety websites, and the second edition of his book, “Understanding Patient Safety,” was recently published by McGraw-Hill. In addition, he coined the term “hospitalist” in an influential 1996 essay in The New England Journal of Medicine and is chair-elect of the American Board of Internal Medicine.  His posts appear semi-regularly on THCB and on his own blog, Wachter’s World.

1 reply »

  1. Bob-

    You write: “So Halamka is testing various policies to place some digital distance between the personal and professional, including blocking personal email and certain social networking sites while on duty. He’s even investigating the possibility of issuing docs and nurses hospital-owned mobile devices at the start of shifts, collecting them at the end.”

    This seems to me reasonable.

    Digital distraction has become life-threatening in so many ways.

    Try driving a car in Manhattan. Pedestrians who are texting or reading their e-mails regularly cross streets on a red-light, oblivious to a car turning onto the street. Last week, I saw a woman pushing a stroller, crossing on red, who didn’t even look up when we braked . .

    If people risk their own lives, that’s one thing, but folks who are in a profession where they are reponsible for other people’s lives?

    Think of it this way. If I were selling shirts in Macy’s, and my supervisor saw me ignoring a customer, even for a few minutes, while I texted, what would happen? What if it happened a second dimte.

    If I worked in an office and my boss discovered that I was e-mailing during work hours — and continued to do this after receiving a warning, what would happen?

    Why would we cut more slack for people who are doing jobs that are so much more important?