If you’re a member of a hospital’s clinical engineering staff, most likely you’ve been asked to referee this bout: In one corner, the advantages of modern wireless communications tools that improve hospital efficiency; in the other corner, concern for patient safety and reliable operation of clinical equipment. Because of biomeds’ technical expertise, most hospitals expect them to score a knockout; as a result, biomeds find themselves jabbing and parrying the topic. Suggestions for biomeds caught in the middle.

 It’s a dilemma worthy of King Solomon! On the one hand, you have hospital departments from dietary to pharmacy demanding instant communications within the hospital and the right to use cell phones, wireless PDAs and walkie-talkies. On the other hand, you consider the plethora of studies and reports of wireless transmissions causing ventilators to shut down, pacemakers to malfunction and IV pumps to change flow rates. No wonder the biomed tech feels caught in the middle!

How does one balance the advantages of modern wireless communications tools that improve hospital efficiency with the concern for patient safety and reliable operation of clinical equipment? Add to this mix the “nontechnical” aspects of the problem: the inadvertent disclosure of personal information (remember Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act/HIPPA privacy regulations?), the increased noise pollution within the hospital environment, and the addition of yet another intrusion into the sick patient’s need for peace and quiet. Is it possible to satisfy everyone’s needs?

Because of our technical expertise, most hospitals look to clinical engineering to separate fact from fiction. Even after sorting through the volumes of studies about electromagnetic interference (EMI) and the resulting effects on medical equipment operation, no “smoking gun” emerges that can convince skeptical hospital personnel unequivocally of the dangers of unregulated wireless device usage in the clinical setting. It is difficult to persuade staff members that preventative measures need to be taken against using wireless devices within the clinical setting without being able to demonstrate absolute, repeatable proof of medical equipment malfunction due to EMI. Knowing what we know, it is equally difficult to give blanket approval to the unregulated use of wireless communications devices throughout the hospital.

Why has this issue attracted more attention in recent years? For starters, the quantity of electronic medical devices in use has increased rapidly due to mass production, miniaturization of components and number of manufacturers. Also, the electromagnetic relays, switches and dials of the past have been largely replaced by more EMI-sensitive electronic controls. The increased number of pacemakers and defibrillators being implanted into patient’s bodies present a higher susceptibility to EMI-induced problems. And finally, the widespread availability and decreased cost of cell phones have made them more affordable and accessible to the general population, creating more potential sources of unwanted radiation.

So, what are the facts relating to medical equipment and EMI as we know them today?

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