Tech + Health

05.05.14

Patients, Put Down Your Smartphones

When you take your child to the doctor, part of your job as a parent is to be aware—and available for questions. So step away from the smartphone.

Every profession has its little frustrations. Flaky clients, inscrutable presentations, difficult co-workers—everyone has to deal with aspects of their jobs that they don’t like. Why should medicine be any different?

But I fear one day a recurring annoyance is going to push me over the edge, and I can’t imagine I’m alone. So consider yourselves fairly warned, parents of America—one of these days I’m going to lose my shit completely and drop someone’s smartphone into the sharps container.

I understand that we’ve all gotten so attached to our iPhones and Androids that the idea of prying our eyes off of them for some ghastly indefinite stretch of minutes fills us with agita. I am not immune to this myself, and my husband has to get on my case about paying more attention to my Twitter feed than the real world from time to time. I understand all too well how addictive the technology in our pockets can feel.

Furthermore, I know there are times when circumstances demand contact with the outside world even during medical appointments, particularly when last-minute arrangements are being made for the care of a sick child. If a text from the sitter or a call from the office can’t be avoided, a brief explanation and an effort to keep the conversation short is all I ask for.

But no matter how large Candy Crush looms in your life or how captivating the repartee you’re sharing via text may be, you need to stash the phone during your child’s medical appointment. All of it. Even if lasts a whole 30 minutes or more.

Let’s start with the most basic reason to put the smartphones away when you’re in my office—it’s rude. Yes, I realize that making reference to such things as good manners and basic human courtesy may seem so quaintly antiquated I may as well crank up a Victrola to entertain people in the waiting room. But the physician-patient dynamic is about more than just doing an exam and diagnosing a problem. It’s about building a relationship and getting to know one another, and staring at the back of your phone while your thumbs move at lightening speed does nothing to foster that.

Beyond that, I also need to get information about what’s going on with your child. Even middle school-aged children can omit or misunderstand details I might need to properly care for them, and relying on them to give me all the history is inappropriate. Now, perhaps you think you can attend both to your phone and to the questions I’m asking, but let me assure you this is not the case. When I politely ask parents to put their phones away (thus risking their wrath and a negative online review), the answers I get from them afterward are invariably more thorough and nuanced than the limited responses my questions elicit beforehand.

Yet what baffles and disheartens me most about parents whose gaze remains fixed to the small screens in front of them during their children’s appointments is how indifferent that makes them seem to the children themselves. I pride myself on doing my job well, both in terms of being a competent diagnostician and in putting my patients at ease. (Perhaps I could take it as a backhanded expression of confidence when parents opt to check their email instead of watching what I’m doing.) But as assuredly safe as these kids are when they’re under my care, parents should be paying attention anyway. Their sons and daughters are in a somewhat vulnerable position and I’m meant to be doing a good job, and their mothers and fathers should be keeping an eye on both.

One of these days I’m going to lose my shit completely and drop someone’s smartphone into the sharps container.

If I, whose relationship with these people falls within professional boundaries, feel like they should be paying more attention to me when they’re with their kids in my office, how must those kids feel? If some parents cannot tear their eyes away from their smartphones for the brief span of time it takes to get in and out of my office, what does that say about their priorities? If their child’s healthcare doesn’t merit a break from their mobile devices, what does?

Obviously, I cannot and should not try to draw any major conclusions about parent-child relationships based upon the limited data point of parental smartphone addiction. Everyone has flaws and foibles, and for some moms and dads it’s an apparent inability to disconnect from the ceaseless stream of telecommunications. But staying connected to mobile media at the expense of attending to medical appointments does both the patient and me a disservice.

Power off. Instagram will still be there when we’re done.