Steven J. Yelton: The Smartphone Is a Smart Tool for Biomeds

As a college professor as well as a senior consultant for a clinical engineering department of a hospital, I have the privilege of working with people of all age groups. Most, if not all, have a smartphone. I have been very impressed at what a great tool it has been.

Before I go any farther, I have to say that on my classroom and laboratory, we have ground rules for use of smartphones, tablets, laptops, or similar devices. During a test, students definitely cannot use them.

During lectures, I basically ban the use of smartphones as well. I explain to my students that the use of such devices during a lecture is disruptive because as soon as someone starts looking at a screen, the students behind that person are straining to see what is on the screen. The first time that students see this happen with someone else in class, they are believers! The fact that students cannot use their smartphones during lectures hopefully forces them to develop their listening skills. There are few things worse than trying to carry on a conversation with or present a lecture to people who are also “on” their phone. They aren’t multitasking; they are rude.

If their phone rings, beeps, chirps, or preferably vibrates during a lecture, students are expected to quietly leave the room and take care of the situation. Most of my students have families, jobs, and other commitments in which an emergency might arise, and it’s important to recognize that fact. They learn that they should be courteous to the other students and professors.

That being said, I am a big fan of this technology when used with good manners.

I cannot tell you how many times students have used their smartphones to text a friend or colleague for information to help solve a lab problem. It could be something as simple as finding out the factory default password setting for a patient monitor. Smartphones have a camera, so students can take photos of things such as serial numbers, displays, or connections. They can email this information to others when they need help figuring out a particular challenge. They often include these photos in their lab reports. Such actions are not cheating; they represent a good use of students’ time. Once they figure out a problem, they will know the answer from then on. I don’t think that taking hours looking for the solution is any more valuable than finding help faster. (By the way, getting such help isn’t allowed during tests!)

The use of a smartphone in class can be beneficial in other ways. One time, I saw students using FaceTime to get another pair of eyes on a problem. We had a device in the lab with a particularly tricky problem. The students worked on it as a group. Even with some hints from the professor, they were having difficulty. They connected with a technician from one of the student’s co-op job via FaceTime to discuss the problem. I was very impressed that they were able to very clearly define the problem, show how the device reacted to inputs, and then get advice on how to proceed. The smartphone connects the world! I later found out that technicians from developing countries communicate with others via FaceTime to help solve problems. Not long ago, it would have been impossible to get help from faraway experts so quickly.

In conclusion, we need to embrace the technology, but do so with courtesy—and remember that the person standing in front of you takes priority.

Steven J. Yelton, PE, CHTM is a professor of HTM for Cincinnati State Technical and Community College and a senior consultant for clinical engineering.  He is also a member of AAMI’s Board of Directors, AAMI’s Technology Management Council, and AAMI’s Healthcare Technology Accreditation Committee.

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