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Online Technologies Doctors Love: Age Matters

Docs love tablets, but adoption of Internet technologies varies depending on gender, age, and work environment, study says.

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In some respects, physicians are technological trend setters. For example, 62% of physicians are now using iPads or other tablet computers, while just 19% of U.S. adults have tablet computers. But within the physician community, there are sharp differences in technology adoption. A new study shows that in regard to Internet technologies, these differences are related to physician demographics rather than to professional variables such as specialty, practice setting, or the number of patients they see per week.

Researchers associated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked at physician use of seven Internet-related technologies: social networking websites, portable devices to access the Internet, email to communicate with patients, podcasts, widgets, RSS feeds, and blogging. The source of their data was the 2009 DocStyles survey of Epocrates, a vendor of online reference materials. The sample of 1,750 family physicians, internists, pediatricians, ob/gyns, and dermatologists was randomly selected to match the demographic characteristics in the AMA Masterfile of all U.S. physicians.

Reflecting that profile, the majority of the survey participants were male (70%) and worked in group practices (64%). Within the previous six months, 81% of the respondents had used a portable device to access the Internet; 59% had used a social networking website; 49% had used email to communicate with patients; 41% had listened to a podcast; 22% had used a widget; 19% had used an RSS feed; and 13% had written a blog post.

[ Which medical apps are doctors and patients turning to? See 9 Mobile Health Apps Worth A Closer Look. ]

When the researchers examined the characteristics of the physicians in the sample, lead author Crystale Cooper told InformationWeek Healthcare, "Individual traits--particularly being male--more often predicted Internet technology use than variables related to the nature of their work."

For example, male physicians were more likely than female ones to use six of the seven technologies; younger doctors were more likely than older clinicians to use three of them. Those with privileges at a teaching hospital were more likely than other doctors to access the web with portable devices, communicate with patients via email, and use widgets. The teaching-hospital credential was the only one strongly associated with patient emailing.

"Teaching hospitals are technology-rich environments, so that might be some of what's going on," Cooper said. The research model adjusted for the higher percentage of young doctors in academic medical centers, she added.

Not all of the findings were correlated with trends in the general population. For the country as a whole, the study noted, age is inversely associated with ownership of smartphones, use of social media, downloading of podcasts, and blogging. But the only two areas where younger doctors scored higher than their older colleagues were in using portable devices to access the Internet and social networking.

Cooper conceded that the profiles of physicians who use the Internet-related technologies might have changed since 2009. For example, the tendency of men to adopt new technology faster than women has been well documented. But whereas more men than women used the Internet at first, women have represented the majority of web users since 2005, she said.

The CDC sponsored the research to develop new strategies to inform healthcare providers about gynecologic cancer. Most of the recent Internet-based communication experiments, in contrast, have targeted patients. In that context, it's noteworthy that nearly half of the surveyed physicians had used email to communicate with patients. What's unclear, however, is how often they did that.

Consumers use social media more than physicians do, according to a recent PWC survey. One reason may be that physicians tend to use specialized social media like Sermo and LinkedIn to gather professional information rather than going online with their patients on Facebook or Twitter.

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