Using mobile phones in UK hospitals: what are the rules and is it safe?

Until recently, a blanket ban on mobile phones in hospitals applied across the UK. The rationale was primarily due to concerns about potential interference with medical equipment, although the evidence for this has always been limited.

Mobile phones less risky than other hospital systems

A study by the Medical Devices Agency (a division of the Department of Health) in 1997 showed that only 4% of medical devices suffered interference from mobile phones at a distance of 1m, with less than 0.1% showing serious effects.  This was significantly less than the risk posed by other mobile communication equipment used in hospitals such as the handsets carried by the emergency services and personnel such as porters.

The MDA’s recommendation at the time was clear: a blanket ban in hospitals was not necessary, with the MDA favouring restrictions in certain areas where sensitive equipment was in use. Their guidance was that hospitals “need to formulate local policies, based on the medical devices in use, the communication equipment and the local environment.”

“Essential in hospitals for good patient management”

Subsequent guidance from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the MDA’s successor, in 2004 reiterated this recommendation, recognising mobile phones “can be essential in hospitals for good patient management”, and that a “total ban on these systems is not required and is impossible to enforce effectively.”

However, many hospitals continued to take the local decision to ban mobile phones entirely. Other factors beyond safety emerged, with concerns ranging from patient privacy to the potential loss of revenue from hospital telephone services.

Using a mobile phone is now allowed in hospitals

Following continued pressure from the medical community, patient groups and the government, the ban on mobile phone use in hospitals was lifted in 2009 with updated Department of Health guidance focusing primarily on the relevance to patients.

Following this guidance, individual hospitals have begun to update their own policies on mobile phones to reflect the change. In most cases these policies are published on line for anyone to download and review. The NHS choices website also covers this in the common health questions area of their site, see Can I use my mobile phone in an NHS hospital for more information.

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