How close is too close? A guide to keeping personal devices and medical equipment at a safe distance

Smartphones and tablets — devices that more than 60 percent of Americans carry on their person at nearly all times — emit electromagnetic radiation that can interfere with medical equipment. Sometimes this interference can lead to serious clinical consequences for patients.

In a study published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Electromagnetic Compatibility, researchers from Concordia University in Montreal aimed to define a clear rule of thumb for how close healthcare workers wielding Wi-Fi enabled devices can safely get to electronic medical equipment.

Their conclusion: The risk of interference is very small when a wireless device is kept further than arm's length from medical equipment.

Hospitals often specify a designated minimum separation distance for staff members carrying wireless transmitters in order to mitigate the risk of interference with a medical device.

"We wanted to see whether this policy really affects the risk of electromagnetic interference," Mehdi Ardavan, PhD, lead author of the study, said in a statement. "But there were two main obstacles: One was the high cost of determining and computing the electromagnetic field strength; the second was the lack of any study on how the medical staff carrying the wireless devices move around a patient's bed."

The researchers developed a tool to estimate the likelihood of interference with a mathematical model to account for the roaming nature of the wireless transmitters some staff members carry. They concluded that including a minimum separation distance policy is effective so long as the staff complies, but when healthcare workers become lax with observing the minimum separation distance, the likelihood of problems increases.

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