It’s amazing how attached people are to their cell phones. Many people will answer them without any thought of what else is going on. It’s something I’ve seen in veterinary hospitals where wireless or cell phones are the primary mode of internal communication. The natural tendency to answer the phone often overrides the thought process of “are my hands covered in pus, blood or some other gross material that I should perhaps remove before touching this piece of plastic that will spend a lot of time against my face and which may go home with me?” We’ve grown some interesting things from cell phones and pagers, as have others.

A recent paper in the American Journal of Infection Control (Sadat-Ali et al 2010) provides yet another example of this. In this study, the authors cultured cell phones of 288 health care providers over a six-month period.

  • 44% of phones were contaminated with “potentially harmful” bacteria. There’s no description of what they considered “potentially harmful” and I’m surprised that the percentage wasn’t even higher.
  • MRSA was isolated from 7.3% of phones, from people in wards, the emergency room and the operating room.
  • 31% of people said they occasionally wiped down their phones with alcohol swabs. People who said they did this were significantly less likely to have contaminated phones.

Is this really surprising? No, not at all. We don’t live in a sterile environment, and the more contact with healthcare environments, the greater the chance of contamination with healthcare-associated microorganisms. We also know that hygiene practices associated with cell phones are certainly not very common, nor have optimal ways to reduce or remove contamination been investigated.

Is this a problem? It’s hard to say. Just because cell phones can become contaminated, that doesn’t mean they are sources of infection. They are one of many, many potentially contaminated environmental surfaces. However, given the close contact with them and the potential that someone would touch a cell phone and then a patient, it’s something that shouldn’t be ignored.

Are health care workers’ phones worse than other people’s phones? It’s hard to say. This study didn’t look at a control group of non-healthcare workers. I suspect that phones owned by the general public are often contaminated as well, though perhaps not with the same range of microorganisms.

How can we reduce the risk of contamination? It’s simple: wash your hands regularly. If healthcare workers washed their hands when they are supposed to (especially before and after patient contacts), the risk of contamination and the implications of cell phone contamination would be greatly reduced.

Like a lot of things in infection control, reducing the risks of this potential problem is pretty easy in  theory, but harder in practice, because the draw of that ringing phone is pretty powerful psychologically.

Image from http://cancergrace.org