COMMENTARY

What Is the Real Risk of Smartphones in Medicine?

Chris Notte, MD, and Neil Skolnik, MD

August 10, 2021

Over the 10 years we've been writing this column, we have often found inspiration for topics while traveling — especially while flying. This is not just because of the idle time spent in the air, but instead because of the many ways that air travel and health care experiences are similar. Both industries focus heavily on safety, are tightly regulated, and employ highly trained individuals.

Consumers may recognize the similarities as well — health care and air travel are both well-known for long waits, uncertainty, and implicit risk. Both sectors are also notorious drivers of innovation, constantly leveraging new technologies in pursuit of better outcomes and experiences. Occasionally, however, advancements in technology can present unforeseen challenges and even compromise safety, with the potential to produce unexpected consequences.

A familiar reminder of this potential was provided to us at the commencement of a recent flight, when we were instructed to turn off our personal electronic devices or flip them into "airplane mode." This same admonishment is often given to patients and visitors in health care settings — everywhere from clinic waiting rooms to intensive care units — though the reason for this is typically left vague. This got us thinking. We wondered, what is the real risk of smart phones in medicine , or aviation, for that matter. More importantly, what other emerging technologies have the potential to create issues we may not have anticipated?

Mayo Clinic Findings on Radio Communication Used by Mobile Phones

Once our flight landed, we did some research to answer our initial question about personal communication technology and its ability to interfere with sensitive electronic devices. Specifically, we wanted to know whether radio communication used by mobile phones could affect the operation of medical equipment, potentially leading to dire consequences for patients. Spoiler alert: There is very little evidence that this can occur. In fact, a well-documented study performed by the Mayo Clinic in 2007 found interference in 0 out of 300 tests performed. To quote the authors, "the incidence of clinically important interference was 0%."

We could find no other studies since 2007 that strongly contradict Mayo's findings, except for several anecdotal reports and articles that postulate the theoretical possibility.

This is confirmed by the American Heart Association, who maintains a list of devices that may interfere with ICDs and pacemakers on their website. According to the AHA, "wireless transmissions from the antennae of phones available in the United States are a very small risk to ICDs and even less of a risk for pacemakers." And in case you're wondering, the story is quite similar for airplanes as well.

The latest publication from NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) documents incidents related to personal electronic devices during air travel. Most involve smoke production — or even small fires — caused by malfunctioning phone batteries during charging. Only a few entries reference wireless interference, and these were all minor and unconfirmed events. As with health care environments, airplanes don't appear to face significant risks from radio interference. But that doesn't mean personal electronics are completely harmless to patients.

Smartphones' Risks to Patient With Cardiac Devices

On May 13, 2021, the FDA issued a warning to cardiac patients about their smart phones and smart watches. Many current personal electronic devices and accessories are equipped with strong magnets, such as those contained in the "MagSafe" connector on the iPhone 12, that can deactivate pacemakers and implanted cardiac defibrillators. These medical devices are designed to be manipulated by magnets for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes, but strong magnetic fields can disable them unintentionally, leading to catastrophic results.

Apple and other manufacturers have acknowledged this risk and recommend that smartphones and other devices be kept at least 6 inches from cardiac devices. Given the ubiquity of offending products, it is also imperative that we warn our patients about this risk to their physical wellbeing.

Notte is a family physician and chief medical officer of Abington (Pa.) Hospital–Jefferson Health. Skolnik is professor of family and community medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Philadelphia, and associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington Hospital–Jefferson Health. They have no conflicts related to the content of this piece.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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