Is It Really Dangerous to Use My Cell Phone in a Medical Facility?

Q: Is It Really Dangerous to Use My Cell Phone in a Medical Facility? 

A:  Good question.  It seems that as soon as you get within 100 yards of a hospital, signs start warning you that your cell phone could single-handedly cause mass casualties: pacemakers will shut down, defibrillators will start firing, EKG machines will miss heart attacks; satellites will fall out of the sky; the coffee machine in the doctors’ lounge will stop working…

And to be honest, I have seen cell phones cause a little static at the Student Health Center.  A couple of weeks ago, a nurse was doing an EKG on one of my patients and when his cell phone rang, it caused the tracing to go a little fuzzy for a few seconds.  So I did a little investigating.

Turns out that there’s probably nothing to worry about.  A recent study done at the Mayo Clinic showed that cell phones didn’t cause any interference with medical equipment in a hospital.  They did 300 tests on everything from pacemakers and ventilators to brain wave monitors and blanket warmers, and didn’t find one instance of interference.  These findings support a previous study done at Mayo back in 2001 that showed that cell phones interfered with EKG’s enough to hinder interpretation about 7% of the time, but the interference was never enough that significant abnormalities would be missed and it only occurred when the cell phone was within 3 feet of the EKG machine.

So if you’re getting an EKG done it wouldn’t hurt to take your cell phone out of your pocket, but otherwise you can feel fairly safe that your cell phone won’t do you (or anyone else) any harm.  Unless of course, you annoy everyone in the waiting room by talking about the last episode of Glee with your best friend at the top of your lungs – the Mayo studies didn’t say anything about how often cell phones cause people in medical facilities to have books thrown at them.

John A. Vaughn, MD
Student Health Services
The Ohio State University