Since gadget-happy doctors got their hands on the iPad last year, many have turned it from a toy into a professional tool.
Dr. Jeffrey Westcott, cardiology board chair at Swedish Medical Center, a four-hospital complex in Seattle, even sees it as a lifesaver. It can "help me avoid mistakes by knowing more about the patient when I'm asked to make a decision."
Just the other day, he got a phone call from a pain doctor who wanted to attach electrodes into the epidural area around the spine of a mutual patient and wanted to take her off her anticoagulant in preparation for the surgery. Westcott was at home when he got the call, but he had his iPad and logged into his hospital's Epic electronic medical records system's iPad client and was able to see that the woman had an artificial aortic valve and must remain on the drug for that reason.
"I didn't have independent recall of that lady, but within two seconds I was able to look it up," he says. "That's a big deal, and it happens every day. She could have had a stroke."
Westcott also sees great potential in using the iPad to educate patients on their conditions and treatment. He's so enthusiastic that he's been working as an unpaid consultant to 3D4Medical, a medical imagery company, to create more vivid and accurate animations of common heart conditions. Dr. Lacy Harville of East Tennessee Cardiovascular Surgery Group has been doing the same. When 3D4Medical raised the issue of a consulting fee, Harville brushed it aside, saying "I just want to have this for my own patient's benefit."
Harville, too, thinks these graphics and the accessibility the iPad is giving him are saving lives. They help him convince patients that they really need surgery when, for example, they're suffering from a condition like a leaking heart valve that leaves them weak but not really feeling ill. For years, he has used hand-drawn sketches, but 3D4Medical's animation makes the point more clearly. "When they can see a normal valve, and then see how a damaged one works, it just clicks 10 times better," he says.
Despite all the benefits, many hospital and healthcare technologists are still trying to sort out where the iPad and other mobile devices fit into their medical bags. Ensuring information security and protecting patient privacy both loom large in the context of devices that can easily walk out the door. If it's a doctor's personal device, rather than hospital property, it's going to exit at the end of every shift. While that lets the doctor quickly look up medical records when called at home or at a restaurant, it also opens up the possibility that the device will be left behind on a restaurant table.
Mobile device security is relatively easy to deal with. Strict password policies and the ability to remotely wipe the memory of a device that's lost or stolen can alleviate most security concerns. But other issues are challenging the widespread use of mobile devices in medical settings, including the lack of native support for many non-Windows devices, the inability to disinfect many mobile devices, and device overload, where clinicians are finding themselves toting around too many of them.
Download the May 2011 issue of InformationWeek Healthcare