We're all used to doctors asking us lifestyle-related health questions about drinking, smoking, using drugs or wearing seat belts. But should physicians also inquire about distracted driving?
Absolutely, says Dr. Amy Ship, author of a perspective paper in the Thursday issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. The primary care physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston makes the case that doctors should counsel patients about the potentially devastating effects of texting or talking on the phone while driving: "...as technology evolves, our questions must be updated in keeping with the risks..." she writes.
In her own practice, Ship says she asks patients about wearing seat belts, then segues into asking about texting while driving. If a patient cops to that, Ship counsels them on the hazards of that behavior. Even if patients only admit to talking on the phone while driving, Ship advises them on the risks they're taking. And though she's handy with statistics, Ship says that telling patients driving while distracted is about the same as driving drunk is often a better way to cut to the chase.
She also asks patients if they could cut down their phone use in the car, or even abstain altogether. She writes, "If patients tell me that occasionally they receive 'important' phone calls they don't want to miss, we discuss what that means in the context of the risks. We talk about alternatives, including pulling over to make or take calls. I remind them that we all managed without mobile phones until recently and encourage them to return to the practices of the pre-cellphone era."
For patients who argue that talking hands-free is OK, Ship counters with this: "...I ask them, 'How would you feel if the surgeon removing your appendix talked on the phone -- hands free, of course -- while operating?' "
We can't argue with Ship, and we wonder if more doctors will take up her call to counsel patients about the dangers of distracted driving. "A question about driving and distraction is as central to the preventive care we provide as the other questions we ask," she writes. "Not to ask -- and not to educate our patients and reduce their risk -- is to place in harm's way those we hope to heal."
-- Jeannine Stein
Photo: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times