Break free from screen addiction: a doctor’s prescription for smartphone sanity

Screentime addiction is real and it is everywhere. Over the past decade, I’ve worked with only one physician who doggedly held onto his pager, refusing to adopt the hospital’s HIPAA-compliant messaging app. He happens to be in his seventies, and a giant in his field; if he gets any grief for not using a smartphone 24/7, he probably doesn’t care. For the rest of us, though, this isn’t an option. We tether ourselves to smartphones, expecting – for ourselves and from each other – immediate access to consultants, patients’ charts, and the latest guidelines. Never mind that excessive screentime is bad for patient care, bad for our attention spans, bad for our mental health, and bad for our relationships and emotional resilience.

Now, you could try to ditch the smartphone. “Minimalist,” “basic” or “dumb” phones are thoughtfully designed and growing in popularity, but they’re useless for EHR apps and HIPAA-compliant messaging. You could try a smartphone for work and a boring, basic phone for personal use, but this is expensive. It’s also not necessary. If you desire a single, nonaddictive smartphone that is entirely functional for patient care and academic work, this is the smartphone you already have: it just needs a few edits. As an experiment for the new year,

1. Delete apps that don’t have to be on your phone, that you could reasonably access from a tablet, laptop, desktop, or workstation on wheels. This includes anything that remotely resembles news, entertainment, or social media. Be ruthless. You can always add them back.

2. Keep – but remove from your home screen – apps that you use on a semi-regular basis, such as ride-sharing and money-transferring apps. Be ruthless. You can always open them through the “search” function.

3. Create a folder labeled “work”: this may include apps for HIPAA-compliant messaging, work email, work scheduling, 2-factor authentication, and file storage.

4. Disable notifications for most apps, especially email. Don’t panic: if people need to reach you, they will some other way. You’ll probably be left with notifications for calls, text messaging, HIPAA-compliant messaging, and calendar events.

5. Set your phone to grayscale.

6. Simplify your home and lock screens.

You’ll be left with something like this:

Two final thoughts: first, what to do about your browser?

It depends on your practice setting, specialty, and level of training. If you use a laptop or desktop for every patient encounter, you can probably remove your browser from your phone’s home screen. Conversely, if you traverse multiple settings you may need a browser in your pocket for direct patient care, particularly if you are a resident. But you may not: your go-to websites are probably available as apps.

The problem with a browser is that you can, well, browse. Endlessly. It will “interest you in everything, all of the time; a little bit of everything, all of the time.” So whether or not you choose to keep a browser, set a limit for it. (This won’t impact patient care: you can choose to override it.) While you’re at it, set an app limit for anything else you may have removed from your home screen but not deleted entirely (i.e., social media).

Allison O. Ignatz-Hoover is a neonatologist.


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