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Using Your Phone at Work Can Lead to Life-Threatening Errors, Study Finds

When your friends who don’t work in healthcare take a quick peek at their cell phones on the job, the worst that will probably happen is a slap on their wrist. But when you save lives for a living, the stakes of even a brief distraction are much higher.

At least, that’s what recent research published in JAMA Pediatrics, which followed more than 200 nurses working in a pediatric intensive care unit, indicates.

RELATED: So, You’ve Made a Medical Error — What Should You Tell the Patient?

The study followed 3,308 patients and 257 nurses, roughly half of whom received a call 10 minutes before administering medication to a patient. The nurses who were distracted made mistakes at a rate of 3.7 percent, notably higher than the error rate, 3.1 percent, among those who were uninterrupted. That said, the authors stressed they couldn’t definitively link the interruption to the error.

Researchers also observed that the risk of error varied by shift, the nurse’s experience, nurse-to-patient ratio and the level of patient care being provided. For example, the risk of error was higher during night shifts and among nurses who had fewer than six months of PICU experience. There was also an increased risk of error for nurses caring for multiple patients when at least one patient was receiving mechanical ventilation and arterial catheterization.

Incoming text messages were not associated with error. (But other research has found the sound of notifications from social media is.)

RELATED: 5 Ways Social Media Can Harm Your Nursing Practice

The main takeaway from the research is what you’d expect. While communication-related interruptions can’t be totally eliminated, interventions to reduce their frequency are crucial — and these initiatives should consider to what time of day employees are working, staffing ratios, clinicians’ experience level and patient acuity.

To prevent your phone from becoming a distraction at work, leave it out of reach while you’re caring for patients and set it to silent mode. Consider downloading a tool that bars you from accessing distracting apps during a shift.

RELATED: Inpatient vs. Outpatient: Which is Associated with More Preventable Medical Errors?

To avoid making medication errors, follow these evidence based steps, per

  • Follow the “rights” of medication administration. Make sure you’ve got the right patient, drug, time, dose and route.
  • Conduct independent double-checks of the medication amount, etc., especially for high-risk drugs.
  • Review the medication administration record and patient record at the beginning of your shift. Determine the rationale for each medication ordered and ask physicians or APPs to rewrite the order if necessary.
  • Don’t administer any medications you’re not familiar with.


Association Between Mobile Telephone Interruptions and Medication Administration Errors, JAMA Pediatrics.

How to Avoid Medication Errors in Nursing,

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