Are You ‘Phubbing’ Your Patients?

Updated on August 28, 2023

Smartphone etiquette in the hospital setting

By Kim Bassett

We use our phone for everything-literally everything. We have our life story on our phones.  We store our contacts, emails, texts, music, and pictures on our phones. There are recent studies that reveal the average person looks at their phone up to 150 times each day.  Assuming the average person sleeps 8 hours/day that would mean we look at our phone a little more than 9 times an hour during the remaining 16 hours.  Every 6 minutes, you are looking at your phone. 

You know we have a problem when a word has been coined to describe all of this attention we are giving to our phones…phubbing.  This is the word created to describe the “snubbing” of someone in order to check your phone.  Doesn’t it make you crazy when you walk into a service-type of organization such as a restaurant or clothing store and the person behind the counter is looking at their cell phone and ignoring you?  I hate to say it but it happens in hospitals, too. 

It’s inevitable that as a healthcare worker you will, at times, need to use your phone in the presence of a patient.  We have reference and educational materials on our phones.  Nurses and pharmacists have lists of medications and drug doses on their phones for quick reference.  There are numerous times a day you have to “Google-It,” to access information that can actually be work-related.  The challenge is to not make your patient feel they are being ignored while you access this information. 

Below are situations that may occur and proper phone etiquette to use in this healthcare setting.   

  1. Reception Areas. You are sitting at a workstation or perhaps behind the counter at a reception area. Out of the corner of your eye you see your next patient or a visitor walk up. Let’s assume you were using your phone for work purposes such as scheduling staff for the next shift or looking up the time of your next patient’s visit. When the person approaches, set your phone down immediately, make eye contact with them and welcome them.  If you were looking something up related to their visit, let them know.  Otherwise, they are going to assume you were surfing Facebook. Which by the way, if you were…..just don’t.
  2. At the bedside. Your patient asks you a question about a particular medication and side effects.  If you need to look it up, let them know it’s a great question and you will look up the information on your phone. Take this opportunity to have a conversation surrounding this medication or disease process with your patient. This is a great way to make a personal connection with your patient. Use of your phone in this instance may get you top marks on improving patient experience.
  3. On your break.  Break time is your time.  Try to take your breaks out of the work setting.  Go to a break room, cafeteria or sit outside.  If you are in a public workspace, however, you run the risk of phubbing your patient. Should a patient approach you while on break and on your phone, never make them feel like a nuisance.  Stop what you are doing and ask how you can help. This sends them the message that they are most important.
  4. Walking through the hospital looking at your phone. This is a bad habit in every aspect. Just don’t do it. Never walk through the hospital with your nose buried in your phone. Not only is it perceived as unprofessional, it could be dangerous if you run into something or someone. If you need to check something, move out of the line of traffic and sit down or move to a private area where you aren’t in the line of site of patients.  Walk through the halls with your head up and a smile on your face. 
  5. You are with a patient and your phone rings.  I’m sure we all try to keep our phones on vibrate while at work but we occasionally forget.  If your phone rings while you are with a patient, immediately silence your phone without looking at it.  Apologize for not having it on vibrate.  Don’t even take it out of your pocket.  Apologize to the patient for the interruption and continue with the conversation.  If you truly feel you need to look at who is calling, apologize to the patient and give them some explanation as to what could possibly be more important than them. 

There are any number of scenarios that may require you to pull out that phone in front of a patient. You can turn this moment into a positive one or one that leaves your patients and visitors feeling snubbed.  The difference is how you communicate what you are doing.

Take into account the age of your patient, too. Acceptance of technology use is generational, so be conscious and respectful of this as you interact with patients. The younger the patient, the more likely they are to be accepting of phone use. Older patients often won’t be as accepting.

Lets face it; cellphones in the work area have become commonplace. Cellphones are helpful tools when used in appropriate setting. We need to remember to use our body language and verbal skills to communicate what we are doing versus sending a message that looking at our cellphones are more important than the human being in front of us.   

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