Distracted Doctoring

When comedienne Joan Rivers died last August during what was described as a routine outpatient procedure, some people began to wonder what went wrong. Now Rivers’ daughter has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the clinic and the two doctors and three anesthesiologists who treated her mother, alleging that their negligence triggered a coma and her mother’s death from brain damage caused by a loss of oxygen.

Of course, medical malpractice suits aren’t uncommon. What has made this case interesting to the public, aside from Rivers’ notoriety, is the allegation that the medical clinic doctor was so busy taking cell phone pictures of the famous patient and her surgeon-to-the-stars that they belatedly noticed Rivers’ plummeting vital signs. What the public may not realize is, distracted doctoring isn’t uncommon either.

“Distracted Doctoring”

As electronic devices have proliferated in the modern world, their use has been heralded within the medical community as a way to curb medical errors. Computers, smartphones, iPads and other electronic devices offer instant access to patient data, drug information and case studies.

However, just as parents have discovered that kids can and will access the Internet for more than the Encyclopedia Britannica, hospitals and patients are discovering that medical staff use their electronic devices for researching things unrelated to patient care — things like shopping on eBay, posting on Facebook, personal calls and texting — all while they are supposed to be giving direct and undivided attention to the patient.

A 2011 investigative report by the New York Times referred to a survey published in the medical journal Perfusion which found that 55% of technicians who monitor bypass machines during heart surgery acknowledged they had talked on cell phones while in the OR; 50% said they had texted. The point has been made that medical professionals are accustomed to dealing with interruptions — from beepers and phones, other personnel entering and leaving the room, the sound of machines and monitors. The difference now is that they are choosing to actually interact with their electronic devices, and some say this is especially true for younger adults.

Addiction in the Operating Room?

In the United States, 90 percent of online adults aged 18-29 are active on social media sites; on average, social media users aged 18-34 spend nearly four hours each day on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Many suggest this amounts to an addiction that when indulged in a medical environment can, and does, endanger the lives of patients.

  • A patient in Denver was left partially paralyzed after surgery. He filed a lawsuit alleging that the neurosurgeon was distracted during the operation by using a wireless headset to talk on his cell phone. In fact, the doctor’s phone records showed he had made at least 10 calls to family members and business associates while in the OR. The case settled out of court.
  • In Dallas, a 61-year-old woman died following a low-risk cardiac procedure. An investigation found that the anesthesiologist had been on his iPad throughout the operation, texting, surfing the Web, and reading ebooks. He didn’t notice the patient’s blood-oxygen levels were dangerously low until “15 or 20 minutes” after she “turned blue.”
  • An anesthesiologist in Washington state lost his license for sending text messages, often of a sexual nature, during patient care. By matching his cell phone records with hospital records, authorities found 23 cases in which he was texting during patient care, including during several Caesarean deliveries and surgical procedures.

One Word: ICK

Likening electronic devices to guns, some say the problem isn’t the device, it’s the user. In this instance, however, it actually is the device that can present a danger. Research has shown that phones routinely carry bacteria and viruses that pose infection risk, particularly in the operating room. One study — not limited to medical personnel — found that 92% of hands and 82% of phones showed some type of bacterial contamination. In 16% of subjects, both hands and phones were contaminated with Escherichia coli, which is fecal in origin. About a third of hands and a quarter of phones contained Staphylococcus aureus. A study focusing on healthcare workers and their mobile phones found that 94% of the phones tested positive for some type of bacterium, one third of which were methicillin resistant (MRSA). Last year, reports from Uganda linked the transmission of the Ebola virus to contaminated cell phones.

Legal Recourse

At the Louthian Law Firm, our many decades of experience handling medical malpractice cases has taught us to scrutinize every detail of the patient’s medical records to pinpoint the negligent action which caused the injury. Nowadays we know to also examine cell phone records and computer logs to determine whether the healthcare provider was guilty of distracted doctoring. Call us at (803) 454-1200 if your South Carolina surgery went wrong . . . we’ll fight for what’s right.