Mobile phones became commonplace in just a few years and are now used everywhere, included remote areas of the world. These communication tools are used for personal and professional purposes, frequently by health care workers (HCWs) during care.
We and others believe that mobile phones improve the quality, rapidity, and efficiency of communication in health care settings and, therefore, improve the management of patients. In fact, professional mobile phones allow communication between HCWs anywhere in the hospital. In addition, personal mobile phones, frequently smartphones, allow the use of medical apps for evidence-based management of patients.
Mobile phones, both professional and personal, are used in close proximity to patients, as reported in behavioral studies. In a recent study we performed in a hospital setting (Clin Microbiol Infect. 2016 May;22:456.e1-e6. doi: 10.1016/j.cmi.2015.12.008), more than 60% of HCWs who participated declared using phones during care, and also declared that they had halted care to patients while answering a call.
Several studies have shown that mobile phones used at hospitals are contaminated by bacteria, including highly pathogenic ones, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Acinetobacter species, vancomycin-resistant enterococci, Pseudomonas species, and coliforms. Research suggests that these devices may serve as a reservoir of bacteria known to cause nosocomial infections and may play a role in transmission of them to patients through the hands of HCWs.
For the first time, we demonstrated the presence of RNA of epidemic viruses such as rotavirus, influenza virus, syncytial respiratory virus, and metapneumovirus on mobile phones (professional and personal) held by HCWs. In our study, 38.5% of sampled mobile phones were contaminated with RNA from viruses. RNA of rotavirus was the most frequently-detected virus, mainly on phones sampled in the pediatric emergency ward. Interestingly, we found that HCWs in pediatric wards admitted disinfecting their mobile phones less frequently than did other HCWs we interviewed.
Epidemic viruses have already been discovered on other electronic device surfaces, such as keyboards, computers, and telephone handsets. However, in contrast to these other devices, mobile phones are mobile and could be shared and transported anywhere, including in close proximity to patients. Rotaviruses are frequently found on hospital surfaces several months after an epidemic period, after surfaces were cleaned. The high prevalence of rotavirus in pediatric ward patients during our study, and its capacity to persist in the environment, are probably the main factors that explain the high frequency of rotavirus RNA detection on mobile phones in our study.
This finding highlights the possible role of mobile phones in cross-transmission of epidemic viruses, with the transfer from nonporous fomites to fingers, and from fingers to fomites – including mobile phones. Due to the difficulty and fastidiousness of viral culture, the viruses were detected only by molecular biology; the viability of the viruses could not be demonstrated. However, we believe that cross-transmission of viruses may occur, notably in health care settings. The recently reported case of a 40-year-old Ugandan man who stole a phone from a patient with Ebola and contracted the disease, also supports this hypothesis.
We also demonstrated in our study that hand hygiene after the use of mobile phones does not seem to be systematic, even for HCWs continuing care that was in process before picking up their phones. Around 30% of HCWs declared that they never perform hand hygiene before or after handling mobile phones. In addition, more than 30% of HCWs admitted that they never disinfect their phones, even their professional ones; this lack of hygiene could contribute to the persistence of RNA of epidemic viruses.
Our study does not support banning the use of mobile phones in hospitals. We just want to make HCWs aware that mobile phones, which are part of our daily practice, can be contaminated by pathogens, notably viruses. The use of disinfection wipes to clean phones, together with adherence to hand hygiene, is crucial to prevent cross-transmission.
Frequent disinfection of personal and professional mobile phones needs to be promoted to reduce contamination of phones by viruses, especially during epidemics.
In practice, each clinician needs to remember that hand hygiene should be the last thing done before patient contact, as recommended by the World Health Organization. Touching a mobile phone could transfer bacteria or viruses onto hands, and we hypothesize that it could be a factor in cross-transmission of pathogens.
Elisabeth Botelho-Nevers, MD, PhD, is an infectious diseases specialist at the University Hospital of Saint-Étienne (France) and Sylvie Pillet, PharmD, PhD, is a virologist in the Laboratory of Infectious Agents and Hygiene, University Hospital of Saint-Étienne.