How To Get Them to Hang-Up The Cell Phone

I want to share with you a quick technique I’ve been experimenting with for the past few years. I first came up with this while working as a supervisor in the private ambulance service. At that point I did a lot more interacting with bystanders on scene and it was often a challenge to get them to hang-up their cell phones and talk to me.

It still happens. And it seems that it’s becoming a more and more frequent event. People wreak their cars or fall down the escalator and their first thought is, “Oh my gosh, who’s going to pick up the kids at day care? What will my husband say?” And by the time we arrive, three to eight minutes later, they have their cell phone planted in their ear and the conversation is just getting under way. Does this happen to you to? I imagine it does.

So we usually say something like, “Ma’am I need you to put the cell phone down so I can speak to you for a few minutes.” And they say something like, “OK, hang on. Dear I need to go. I need to go. The paramedics need to talk to me. Yes…no…ok. Well it isn’t a lot of damage…” And the conversation continues.

Here’s where I think we make a big mistake. We step away. We step back and give them a few feet of social comfort while they wrap up the conversation. And that’s almost like giving them permission to keep talking. We don’t want to be rude. We don’t want to take the phone away and hang it up. Sure, in some extreme scenario that might be necessary, but it’s pretty over the top. It also doesn’t go over well with the would-be patient.

So here’s my suggestion. Politely ask the patient to hang up the phone and then, when they say, “OK” don’t give them an inch. I mean not an inch. Don’t glance away. Don’t break eye contact. Just stare politely into their eyes with an amicable smile on your face.


They’re going to try to look away. Don’t let them do it. If they turn away, step right back in front of them. Keep your polite smile and keep staring right at them. It’s very, very awkward for the person on the phone. Have you ever tried to talk to one person while staring at another? It’s amazingly distracting, even more so when the person is inches from your face, looking at you kindly. I find most people get off the phone in one or two sentences.

You will find a few people immune to this technique. If I run into someone who just won’t put the phone down I have a few other strategies. First, I try to listen to the context of the conversation. If they have a really significant issue that they’re trying to resolve, I’ll cut them some slack and give them a little time. I don’t want to pressure someone who’s trying to arrange care for a sick relative but who’s going to pick up the client at the airport and what temperature to set the oven for tonight’s turkey can wait. So can detailed descriptions of the event.

If Chatty-Kathy shakes off my polite stare and keeps talking I’ll politely say, “If you’re unwilling to end your phone conversation, I’ll assume that you’re uninjured and don’t want an evaluation. I’ll go start the paperwork.” This tends to jar even the most adamant ramblers out of their phone conversation and back to reality, especially the word paperwork. Average Joe doesn’t know what the paperwork means and they’ll be interested to know what this paperwork is that you’re initiating. By the time you return with the clipboard they’re usually ready to talk.

If you find them still in full conversation mode when you return, take a set of vitals on the free arm and make the call. I’m serious. I’ve only had to do it once before but, after a description of the mechanism, the patient presentation, orientation, and situation, the doctor was more than understanding.

Doc, “He seriously won’t put down the phone and talk to you?”

Me, “Nope, he just keeps talking.”

Doc, ‘OK, have him sign”

And he did. Without ever once interrupting his urgent phone call. I’m sure the dude could later make a case that his refusal was not an informed refusal and I certainly wouldn’t try that on someone who I genuinely thought was sick or injured, but it’s an option worth considering in some cases.

If the dude had an injury that needed evaluation, I imagine I might have needed to take the cell phone from him. What do you think?

Now it’s your turn: Would you use the smile and stare technique? What about the mid-conversation refusal? Would you take a cell phone away from someone? How have you responded in this situation?

What to read some more?

How to Set-Up An IV Line Firefighter Style

The SOAP Reporting Breakthrough

Get Anyone To Go With You To The Hospital

Six Techniques to Nail The IV Every Time

Seven Flawless Physical Restraint Tips


  1. I ask them once. If they do not hang up, I just continue talking to them, asking questions, and start my assessment. So far, it’s worked every time and I have not yet had anyone angry at me for doing so.

    Of course, I work in a *super* rural area, so reactions may differ.

  2. Steve Whitehead says:

    Nice Nathan, just start assessing them and ignore the phone. I’d like to see how that one works.
    What else ya’ll?

  3. I like your suggestion about the paperwork. I’m going to try that one. I do one of two things usually. One, start vitals…on both arms (BP on the arms they are using to hold the phone and pulse on the other). Two, ask to talk to the other person on the phone. Identify yourself and tell them that they will be called back later. Both have worked so far.

  4. All you have to do is pull out the IV start kit. As soon as they see a needle they usually snap to and ask you whats up 🙂
    If you REALLY want to push the issue, grab the IO gun and start looking at their legs.

  5. Steve Whitehead says:

    @JP Well, that’s certainly…aggressive.

  6. just a joke 😉

  7. It is tough to be all up in someone’s face without being aggressive or confrontational.

    If the patient is on a cell phone they are probably not having an emergency. Me pushing them to get off the phone could communicate that I believe they are having an emergency when they are not.

    Fortunately, in my experience asking nicely goes along way towards solving the problem. I also have a well practiced “look” that 99% of the population is able to interpret as this guy needs my attention now.

    I would be interested in how you handle a respiratory distress patient that is smoking when you arrive.

  8. Sean Fontaine says:

    This is just beautiful I can’t wait to give it a try, because cell phones on scene are the bane of my existence some days.

    Greg, your last comment reminds me of a patient I had when I worked in the privates. My partner (whom Steve knows well) and I responded to a C/C of CP @ an ETOH rehab facility, were greeted outside by a staff member sitting on a bench smoking, when we asked where the pt was he stated it was him. My partner and I looked @ each other w/disbelief, my partner then took the cigarette out of the patients mouth and threw it away, put him on the monitor and he was having an inferolateral MI.
    Steve, would this have been your approach?

  9. Recently at work we had a kid pull the fire alarm so we had to evacute the building. this happened on a very busy day so we had to clear out a ton of people. so I took this method of staring politely in the mens locker room as people got dressed because they would NOT LEAVE i had asked them serveral times so i just stood in there and watched after a while…. Im here to say it works.

  10. Steve Whitehead says:

    @Greg, I think it’s doable without being confrontational, but I agree that you should start with the polite request. The key here is that once you ask, you don’t give them permission to ignore you by taking a big step back.

    @Greg and Sean. I understand that nicotine is a phenomenally addictive drug and I get that some folks feel like they can breathe better immediately after a cigarette. I don’t like grabbing stuff from patients if I don’t have to. (But I will.) I like to use the oxygen as an excuse. “Lets get you on some O2 and were going to need to put that flame out so we don’t accidentally burn you.”

    @EPI. Well that’s an extreme version of the technique, but I’m glad you found it effective.

  11. Heather says:

    I agree on the nice approciate at first, ask them politely to hang up the phone, Some times i’ve noticed its not even the patient its the person who called 911 for the patient that wont get off the phone, Say you have a unconcious patient, and a loved one or neighbor calls 911 for them, When I have showen up to scene, I of course start to asses the down patient, but it would be nice to speak to the actually person who placed the call to 911 to begin with… and maybe could give me a idea what happen… I have tried the polite thing on these people and somtimes doesnt work, what should I do then…? besides the obvious continue taking vitals and everything nesscary to stabilize my patient, but it would be nice if the person who called 911 orginally could answer the questions I ask instead of talking on their cell phone.


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