Friday, March 6, 2009

Personal Technology and Personal Infection

This is not really news. However, it has received so little attention that it probably deserves to be treated as such. The earliest account I have found to date was posted on February 18, 2006 to British Nursing News Online:

Researchers at Craigavon Area Hospital in Northern Ireland have found that mobile phones are cultivating the deadly superbugs causing havoc in Britain's hospitals.

The researchers took swabs from 105 mobile phones used by doctors and nurses. They found most of the phones were contaminated with bacteria and 15 were harbouring a strain known to cause serious infection.

Researcher Dr Richard Brady said the contamination of mobile phones risked spreading bacteria despite new measures to increase hand-washing in hospitals.

He said: "We recognise mobile phones are going to be used more and more in health care settings and we are a little bit worried that the bacteria found on mobile phones could be a problem with hand hygiene”.

Brady is now part of the Scottish Infection Research Network; and, thanks to the investigative interests of Kate Foster, came to more public attention at the beginning of this year through the pages of Scotland on Sunday:

FIRST it was handwashing, then it was cleaning the floors. Now mobile phones are revealed to be the latest battleground for hospital superbugs as a team of experts reveals the bacteria thrive on handsets.

A startling image released by researchers reveals colonies of bacteria grown from a working hospital doctor's mobile phone.

The photograph has been issued by a group of infection specialists investigating the spread of hospital superbugs, such as Clostridium difficile (C diff) and MRSA, between staff and patients.

They say the image reveals the ease with which deadly bacteria can be unwittingly carried around hospitals by members of staff.

The research has been carried out by Richard Brady, a surgical research fellow at the Western General Hospital, Edinburgh.

Brady said his study was prompted by the rise in the use of mobile phones by hospital staff and the lack of guidance on how to clean them, despite strict handwashing policies.

There are concerns that the mobile phones could be a route of transmitting infections because they are in regular contact with users' hands and close to their mouths, and because, despite regular handwashing, the bacteria on them could survive if they are not wiped clean.

A ban on mobile phones in hospitals has been relaxed in recent years and doctors have begun to rely on them, rather than the traditional hospital switchboard paging system, for instant communications with colleagues.

Brady said: "Mobile phones are being used in all aspects of healthcare delivery. They are the much preferred route because it makes communication more efficient. However, one aspect that has not been covered is bacterial contamination. They are particularly susceptible to this because they are in close contact with the mouth and hands, and travel to various clinical environments."

Nevertheless, it has not been easy to find reports about this problem from American sources. Last night Chris Matyszczyk posted the results of a similar study at the University of Turkey on his Technically Incorrect blog for CNET News. However, since Matyszczyk is a member of the CNET Blog Network, his posts lack the editorial authority of the CNET news organization. As was the case the last time a CNET Blog Network post came to my attention, the most useful and substantiating information turned up in a comment. Had it not been for that comment, I might have dismissed Matyszczyk's post as an excuse for his showing a photograph of a cell phone at the bottom of a toilet bowl!

Hospitals are clearly a major source of infection. One of their primary purposes is to see to the needs of those infected. We also know that there are an abundance of routines practiced in hospitals to prevent the spread of infection. What may be less apparent is that the opportunities for infection to spread may be one step ahead of those routines, in the spirit of that arms race metaphor that I enjoy invoking. By all rights personal technologies should have been covered by this "arms race" by now; and I have to wonder if the reason that such technologies continue to be such a risk is that too many people feel that the convenience of the technology outweighs the risk of its spreading infection. If this is the case, then we have yet another brick in the wall that blocks us from having affordable quality health care.

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