The ubiquity of cellphone use puts employers in a difficult spot. See how phone use can bring up questions of productivity, professionalism and privacy in a dental office setting, and how to develop and enforce appropriate policies.
There is little doubt that cellphones have dramatically changed our lives. In fact, “phone” is a bit of a misnomer, as it does so much more than make and receive calls. These mobile devices are now computers, cameras, media players, e-readers and GPS trackers all rolled into one.
It’s not surprising then that few of us can go a day without our cellphone by our side. They have become ubiquitous, accompanying us in the car, in meetings, in restaurants and in the workplace. But this puts employers in a difficult spot. Not only does cellphone use bring up questions of productivity and professionalism, it also brings up questions of privacy when used in a dental office setting.
According to a survey conducted by CareerBuilder, more than half the respondents identified cellphone use is the biggest productivity killer in the workplace. The consequences of lost productivity are direct and indirect, causing reduced employee morale, strain on employer-employee relationships, a lower quality of work and negative impact on client interactions.
The Dentists Insurance Company reminds dentists that mobile phone use during work hours can send the message that patients are not the practice’s priority. They can also lead to distractions, which can result in errors in documentation and lack of attention to detail, opening the practice to a liability claim.
TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line has received several calls regarding cellphone use in the office. In one case, a practice owner called about a dental assistant who was repeatedly on her phone. At a performance review six months prior, she was instructed to put her phone away during the workday. After that time, her restroom breaks increased, suggesting she was using her phone in the restroom.
The Risk Management analyst informed the dentist that it is within an employer’s right to require employees to keep their phones in a drawer and to limit their use to designated break periods. The analyst suggested the office create a universal cellphone-use policy and distribute it to all employees. Violation of this policy would be grounds for disciplinary action, including termination.
In another situation, a dentist reported that her head assistant, who has been with the practice for 14 years, was “addicted” to her phone. The employee would read (and send) text messages during morning huddles and would have her phone in her hand while greeting patients. She would even leave her phone out during treatments. The employee manual stated that cellphone use was not allowed during work hours, only during breaks and lunch periods. The dentist relied on this employee heavily and didn’t want to lose her.
The Risk Management analyst guided the dentist to apply policies consistently with all employees. She advised the dentist that in addition to addressing the matter with the employee directly to hold an office meeting to remind staff of the office’s cellphone policy and to make it clear that they could be subject to termination if they are caught violating the policy repeatedly.
Written policies are an employer’s best protection against excessive cellphone use during work hours. While banning cellphone use entirely isn’t feasible, it is appropriate to limit when employees can use phones, such as during meal and rest periods. It is also recommended that cellphones be kept with an employee’s personal belongings or in a drawer to avoid distraction.
It’s not enough to simply have a policy. Following through with disciplinary action demonstrates that you are committed to your policy. Employees will be less likely to break cellphone rules if they know that the policy is more than an empty threat.
Other cellphone-use considerations include:
- Restricting locations where cellphone use is permitted. For example, it is reasonable to prohibit their use in operatories, in the front office or in the presence of patients.
- Outlining what type of use is allowed. For example, texts and brief phone calls are fine, but downloading music or videos is not.
- Minimizing disruptions. Employers can request that ringers are set to silent or vibrate, calls are kept brief and free from offensive language and employees speak quietly when on the phone.
- Protecting privacy. Policies should prohibit taking photos or videos within the practice to protect patient privacy, unless pre-approved by the dentist.
- Employee safety. Employees should not use a cellphone while driving on company business or when engaged in physical activities such as carrying an instrument tray.
- Infectious disease control. Cellphones are believed to harbor as much as 10 times the bacteria as toilet seats. But unlike toilets, people rarely disinfect their phones. A 2014 study showed cellphones are frequent contributors to hospital-acquired infections in the dental setting.
TDIC’s Risk Management team also warns dentists of the inherent risks of texting patients with regards to protecting privacy. It is recommended that dental practices avoid texting patients altogether, but if you must text a patient, be sure to avoid sending any protected health information and make sure the communication is documented in the patient’s chart. Text messaging is only considered HIPAA compliant under certain circumstances. If your practice intends to text patients regularly, seek a secure, HIPAA-compliant third-party vendor that offers the needed encryption.
It is also recommended that dental practices develop a policy regarding communication expectations between employees and their employer. For example, it is a best practice to call in sick, rather than send a text. If an employee is unable to report to work, it is advised they speak to the dentist or office manager directly by phone.
In a case reported to the Risk Management Advice Line, a dentist stated he received a text from an employee at 4 a.m. on a Saturday that conveyed she would not be able to make it to work that day. The dentist called the employee back immediately after receiving the text. When the employee answered, the dentist heard “what sounded like Vegas in the background.” He later found photos of a bridal shower at a local casino posted on the employee’s Facebook page. Had the employee called in, it would have been clear that she was not, in fact, sick. But the office did not have such a policy in place at the time.
The issue in the above case was the informality of the communication. Texting reduces an employee’s accountability as well as the likelihood that these interactions will be documented in the employee’s file. Additionally, there are often cases in which an employee is texting nonmanagement staff members rather than those to whom they should be reporting. This should not be allowed. Following up with a phone call is not intended to catch employees doing something they shouldn’t be doing; rather, it is to have a conversation about the behavior and to inquire whether the employee has available sick time or PTO.
Cellphone-use policies should be documented in writing, signed by the employee and kept within the employee file. It’s important to note that dentists should model acceptable cellphone use in the office. Setting the tone means avoiding the impression of being distracted by a call and limiting phone use to appropriate times that do not interfere with patient care.
Cellphones are an integral part of our daily lives. It’s hard to imagine a time when we weren’t reachable every moment of every day or when we didn’t have access to information at our fingertips. In the workplace, smart cellphone policies as part of a comprehensive employee manual can help your office maintain productivity, increase professionalism and ensure patient privacy is protected.
TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line is a benefit of CDA membership. Schedule a consultation with an experienced risk management analyst or call 800.733.0633.
Reprinted with permission from the December issue of the CDA Journal.