Virtually All Touchscreens Are Contaminated With Pathogens

Pam Harrison

April 10, 2014

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Virtually all smartphones and tablet computers used by healthcare workers are contaminated with at least 1 organism, research from a German hospital shows.

"We might be transferring these pathogens to patients, increasing their risk for infection," said investigator Romy Wendler, a medical student at Klinikum St. Georg in Leipzig, Germany.

"Nurses and physicians use their private phones while working in high-risk areas, such as in operating rooms and ICUs," she told Medscape Medical News. "Our behavior might be putting patients at risk because we are not thinking about good hygiene in these critical settings."

The study results were presented here at the 16th International Congress on Infectious Diseases.

Bacterial Contamination

The objectives of the study were to assess the surfaces of smartphones and tablets for bacterial contamination, and to determine whether a 14-day intensified cleaning period would affect the subsequent burden of microbial contamination.

The entire touchscreen of each device tested was swabbed before and after the cleaning protocol was implemented. Cultures were analyzed using a semi-quantitative colony-forming unit count, and bacteria were identified using classic microbiologic methods.

When the samples were evaluated at baseline, 100 of the 101 smartphones and 19 of the 20 tablets tested were positive for at least 1 pathogen. Approximately 55% of the touchscreens were contaminated with more than 1 species.

Many of the pathogens were bacteria that can cause serious infections in critically ill patients, including Staphylococcus aureus, Enterococcus, and Enterobacteriaceae. The investigators defined such pathogens as relevant.

At least 1 relevant pathogen was present on 15.8% of all smartphone screens and on 25.0% of all tablet screens. One tablet was contaminated was methicillin-resistant S aureus.

Bacterial contamination and bacterial loads were not significantly lower after the 2-week intensified cleaning period. Specifically, the number of pathogens on smartphone screens was 7.7% lower after the intervention, and on tablet screens was 22.2% lower.

 
If you are going to use your phone or device while working, you have to clean it when you go home.
 

The owners of the devices tested completed questionnaires that asked about hygienic behaviors, including how often they cleaned their devices.

Results showed that 65% of tablet users sometimes cleaned their tablet screens, as did about 76% of smartphone users.

About 20% of tablet users and about 10% of smartphone users reported cleaning their device often, but 10% of tablet users and about 8% of smartphone users admitted that they never clean their device.

"It's the same problem as hand hygiene," said Wendler. "If you are going to use your phone or device while working, you have to clean it when you go home. Otherwise, it's a source of infectious contamination."

Special disinfectant wipes are suitable for cleaning any touchscreen, she added.

This is a "good study," Abrar Ahmad Chughtai, MD, from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, told Medscape Medical News.

Dr. Chughtai said he would have liked to have seen the investigators address the level of viral contamination on the touchscreens.

"I'm especially interested in influenza," he explained, "so I would be very interested in knowing the levels of influenza virus that might be contaminating these devices."

Ms. Wendler and Dr. Chughtai have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

16th International Congress on Infectious Diseases (ICID): Abstract 61.014. Presented April 5, 2014.

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