Code blue: massive cardiac arrest! An army of physicians and nurses sprint into the hospital room-and grind to a breathless halt.
The patient is lolling oblivious in bed, in the throes of nothing worse than a killer crossword puzzle. His big-shot brother-in-law is chattering away with the home office on a cellular phone.
False alarm. Blame it on cellular interference.
A growing number of hospitals are limiting use of cellular telephones and other wireless communications to avoid such scenarios-or worse.
The industry, meanwhile, is seeking ways to keep its phone signals from gumming up the electronics of life-saving hospital equipment. It wants to ensure that such interference doesn't threaten the expanding role of cellular phones in medical circles.
Both hospital and industry officials say there have been few-if any-reports of injury to anyone and little damage to hospital equipment. Instead, such electromagnetic interference is more likely to amount to a false reading here, a false alarm there.
The effects occur only when activated cellular phones come within a few feet of the medical equipment. The phones emit radio signals that can confuse the electronic circuitry inside the health devices.
"Not very often is it something that's life-threatening. A lot of times it's something that causes somebody to raise an eyebrow," said Guy Knickerbocker, chief scientist at ECRI of Plymouth Meeting, Pa., a company that helps hospitals manage their high-technology medical equipment.
He said his company has collected 61 reports of such interference since late 1991 from around the country.
The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations collects no numbers on how many hospitals limit cellular phone use. But many hospitals say they have imposed restrictions or have considered doing so.
At Holyoke (Mass.) Hospital, officials in August banned the use of cellular phones inside the building. The restriction is posted at hospital entrances.
Clark A. Fenn, chief of risk management for the hospital, said he was alerted by medical industry literature about potential interference with such equipment as brain and heart monitors, respirators, intravenous pumps and kidney dialysis machines.
But he added, "What got my attention is walking into the emergency department and having a patient's family member standing at the end of the bed talking on a cellular phone."
The hospital has also banned use of two-way portable radios, which are widely used by ambulance personnel, police and firemen. The hospital tells its own security staffers to keep their walkie-talkies away from hospital equipment.
At Cooley Dickinson Hospital in nearby Northampton, Mass., managers have banned visitors from using their cellular phones and other radio equipment since 1993.
Peter Schoenberger, a hospital spokesman, said the staff is trained to keep an especially close watch in areas with critical equipment, such as the emergency room and intensive care.
Officials at both hospitals said no one has been injured as a result of any electromagnetic interference. "It's more a case of not wanting to find out that this stuff is dangerous by having a tragic accident," said Schoenberger.
Mike Houghton, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association in Washington, said hospitals should be thinking about how to handle potential electromagnetic interference from all kinds of sources, including some video games, static electricity and wireless computer modems. Even some medical equipment can interfere with other hospital devices.
A wholesale ban on cellular phones at hospitals "is like throwing the baby out with the bath water," Houghton added. He said cellular technology holds great potential to keep roving doctors in close touch and even make a patient's computer records available by dialing from their bedside.
He said cellular companies are now funding research to assess the extent of interference and how it can be handled. He said manufacturers need to keep down power levels on cellular phones to minimize potential interference.
Makers of medical equipment are also working on building stronger shielding against interference into their products.