Docs Have iPad Fever: Is There A Cure?

Clinicians are excited about what iPads can do for practices. But if you're shopping for a medical tablet, dispassionate analysis is in order.

Paul Cerrato, Contributor

December 12, 2011

4 Min Read

In case you're questioning reports of a tablet epidemic in healthcare, take a look at stats from a QuantiaMD survey. Thirty percent of doctors use a tablet device, compared with just 5% of U.S. consumers, the online physicians' forum said. Of tablet-using physicians, two-thirds, equivalent to 19% of all physicians, use their tablet in a clinical setting. Another 35% of doctors surveyed say they're "extremely likely" to use a tablet in the next few years to help their practice. That sounds like a fever to me.

It's probably no surprise to most health IT managers to hear that Apple's iPad tops the list of tablets that clinicians want to use. But if your clinicians are hot for an iPad, my advice is take two aspirins and call me in the morning.

iPad fever has gotten a little out of hand. Granted, there are lots of practical advantages to using one, including all the medical apps that run seamlessly on it, but the iPad burn goes deeper than that.

[ Explore docs' fascination with iPads. See Apple Capitalizes On Doctors' iPad Romance. ]

A certain segment of the American public--including many physicians--has been hypnotized by Apple's elegance, design savvy, and marketing. Whenever you walk into an Apple Store, you rarely see customers looking for a bargain. It's often folks with designer jeans and keep-up-with-the Jones lifestyles. So I suspect many clinicians have bought into the iPad mystique, the same way they've bought into the Rolex and Jaguar culture. They're status symbols.

Thus there's a need for some dispassionate analysis. The first question IT managers have to ask their physicians: Realistically, how mobile is your daily schedule? A psychiatrist who sees all her patients in one consulting room, for instance, may do just as well with a laptop as a tablet. After all, if you're not that mobile, you don't need a mobile device.

On the other hand, if your providers are constantly on the go, start thinking about battery life. The latest tablet tests, as reported in the January 2012 issue of PCWorld, revealed that the Android-based Galaxy 10.1 battery outlasted the iPad2's by more than 2 hours. The downside, however, is recharge time. The Galaxy took 5 hours, 34 minutes to recharge, versus 4 hours, 10 minutes for the iPad.

Battery life is only one piece of the puzzle. Your tablet has to run the apps that you're most likely to need. The iPad is still the best bet for physicians working in dermatology, radiology, or surgery, because it has the largest collection of relevant apps, said Steve Chan, a physician in training at the University of California, Irvine. But psychiatry would do well with generalist apps like Epocrates, Medscape, and Skyscape, which are also available on Android-based tablets.

Before investing in an iPad, also consider one major disadvantage: iOS lacks a central file management system. Without a centralized system, it's difficult to move files among applications. In practical terms, that means if you want to edit a file in one app and then rename it and open it in another app, you may run into problems. Without a central file system, files are too "sticky," that is, they become associated with specific applications and usually only open in the app they're written for. Android-based tablets have a central file management system, so that's less of an issue.

When choosing a tablet, also think about your physicians' note-taking style. Some are comfortable filling out structured forms and using dropdown menus, but others may benefit from a tablet that lets them write in longhand and do freehand sketches as a patient education tool, for instance. If the latter is the case, think about the ThinkPad tablet which uses the N-trig digitizer pen.

Finally, IT managers and clinicians have to come to grips with the software/hardware "schizophrenia" that's inherent in the iPad. Everyone admits that you can get some really great medical apps for the iPad, but the device itself wasn't designed for healthcare. It might not be able to withstand repeated falls on tiled floors or regular wipedowns with antiseptics, nor is it covered with antimicrobial plastic. These are all factors you must consider when choosing the right tablet for your organization.

According to the QuantiaMD survey, physicians have eagerly embraced both smartphones and tablets to get reference materials on drugs and treatment options, help provide patient education, and access patient records. You obviously don't want to discourage all that online productivity. Now if you can just get docs to choose with the head and not with the heart.

When are emerging technologies ready for clinical use? In the new issue of InformationWeek Healthcare, find out how three promising innovations--personalized medicine, clinical analytics, and natural language processing--show the trade-offs. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Paul Cerrato


Paul Cerrato has worked as a healthcare editor and writer for 30 years, including for InformationWeek Healthcare, Contemporary OBGYN, RN magazine and Advancing OBGYN, published by the Yale University School of Medicine. He has been extensively published in business and medical literature, including Business and Health and the Journal of the American Medical Association. He has also lectured at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons and Westchester Medical Center.

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