What killed etiquette? Cell phones

August 6, 2001

They buzz and beep and chime at the most inopportune times. Like during a lecture. Or a Pap smear.

 

A Medical Economics Web Exclusive

What killed etiquette? Cell phones

They buzz and beep and chime at the most inopportune times. Like during a lecture. Or a Pap smear.

By John R. Egerton, MD
Family Practitioner/Friendswood, TX

The new patient complained of pain in one of his testicles. Because he was hurting, I took care to be gentle as I grasped the offending organ.

There was an immediate electronic buzzing sound as soon as I touched him. I leapt back, surprised at this apparent genital warning system, until I realized that the sound was coming from the patient’s cell phone. He apologized and switched off the phone.

Cell phones are so ubiquitous that they’ve become a nuisance in our office. Loud conversations with spouses, friends, business colleagues, or babysitters commonly disrupt the normally quiet surroundings. We prominently display notices asking that phones not be used in the exam rooms.

As far as patients are concerned, this may be because a cell phone could interfere with vital machinery and jeopardize someone’s health. Still, the signs make little difference; the chimes still ring, the voices still yell.

At least the man with the testicular pain acknowledged the notices; he had merely forgotten to turn off his phone.

That wasn’t the case with Don Tellme, a businessman who was in for his annual physical. I had just laid my stethoscope on his chest.

"Take a deep breath," I said.

And a melodic chime sounded. It came from the phone he was clutching in his hand. Without a sign of embarrassment he answered it.

"I’m at the doctor’s right now," he said.

I was amazed that he had actually answered the thing while I was examining him, instead of letting his voice mail take care of the call. Still, I expected him to tell the caller that he’d talk to him later. Instead, he seemed all set for a business conference right there on the exam table.

"Well, we need to hurry them up on that order," he said. "And did you get together with Joe?"

I listened for about 30 seconds before leaving him to it. I had other patients with different priorities as to how they wanted to spend their time in the doctor’s office. Even when I returned a while later, he was unrepentant.

Minnie Player was in for her Pap smear. The exam was in its early stages when the sound of classical music filled the room. The music came from her purse, which she had left on a chair in a corner of the room. The tune continued for about 15 seconds. I was relieved when it abruptly ceased.

After a slight pause, a different classical melody issued forth from her handbag. Minnie was in no position to retrieve the phone, so the music played on. But whoever was trying to get her attention was persistent; every 15 seconds or so, the phone played another tune.

The exam continued: breasts by Beethoven; Pap by Puccini; and, the grand finale, vaginal by Wagner.

"That’s my husband," giggled Minnie. "He knows where I am. He’s playing a joke."

Very funny.

Only a few short years ago, cell phones didn’t exist; now they’ve become one of life’s necessities. We feel insecure if the phone isn’t within easy reach. Undoubtedly, the mobile phones and the pagers that accompany them are enormously useful. But are we overdoing it?

At a recent lecture I attended, muffled beeps and other more innovative tones continuously emanated from purses and pockets. I was conscious of scrabbling hands reaching for hidden electronic messengers, to silence and then to read them. Occasionally, an unshielded pager would blare.

There was a constant to-and-fro as people left the room to answer their page, usually with a tiny cell phone already held to the ear. How often does a message require that kind of immediate attention? The whole atmosphere was quite distracting.

Another time, a doctor at our dinner table answered his bleating phone.

"How long has he had diarrhea?" he said after listening for a few seconds.

There followed several questions regarding the various physical characteristics of the patient’s excrement. The caller’s replies were repeated loudly, as if for the benefit of the rest of the table. Why do people shout when talking on the phone? And wouldn’t it be more polite to leave the table and let the rest of us dine in peace?

At another dinner meeting, a doctor’s pager went off in the middle of the event’s lecture. She checked the number on it, and promptly pulled out her cell phone and dialed the patient back. It didn’t seem to occur to her that nobody would have minded if she’d left the table to conduct her business in private. No, she talked, unabashed that her conversation was competing with the talk we were there to hear.

There seems to be some sort of snob value to this use of the cell phone, just like there was with the pager a few years ago. It was a sign of prestige to be important enough to have an electronic instrument summon you to an "emergency."

Now everyone carries a pager. So, today, one’s importance will have to be reflected by the continual and uninterrupted use of the cell phone.

Pagers can vibrate rather that bleat, which is a great improvement. And so can some cell phones. So the instruments themselves are not entirely to blame. Like so many other things, it is the human behind the machine that does the harm.

It’s just a question of good manners.

 



John Egerton. What killed etiquette? Cell phones.

Medical Economics

2001;15.