Rethinking Healthcare

iPads still scarce in hospitals; Apple's secret plan to change that

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Only 1% of hospitals have fully functional tablet systems. But Apple is pushing the iPad into the healthcare market, playing against its image as the world's most successful consumer gadget company.

When I started writing about biomedical tech, I figured iPads in hospitals would be the story to follow. And yes, every week or so, there’s news of iPhone apps for health purposes and doctors using iPads for this and that.

But as it turns out, the jury’s still out on the usefulness of tablets in hospitals, NPR reports.

Sure, tablets are finding their way in. At the University of California, San Diego Hospital, a physician assistant uses an iPad 2 to update a patient – who just received a brand new kidney – on his recovery. She pulls up a graph of blood tests that charts how well his new organ’s working, then a chest x-ray from a few days ago showing some fluid build-up in the lungs.

But iPads have been available since April 2010, and less than 1% of hospitals have fully functional tablet systems.

Even at UC San Diego, their electronic record system has a read-only app for the iPad (which means it can't be used for entering all new information). So clinicians have to log on through another program, one that’s built on a Windows platform.

Not to mention major concerns about spotty wireless in hospitals logging doctors off as they move around, distracted doctors, and the security of patient records. And the iPad doesn't fit in the pocket of a standard white lab coat.

Jonathan Mack of the West Wireless Health Institute, a nonprofit that works to lower the cost of healthcare through new technology, says another reason more hospitals aren't using tablets is that they've already invested millions into electronic record systems that aren't compatible with them.

"In order to go back around and deploy these on iPads with full functionality," Mack says, "it requires [that hospitals] cough up a lot more money." Hospitals won't be willing to do that when they aren't even sure that tablets will make things easier.

The federal government is giving hospitals financial incentives to implement electronic medical records, but the most popular systems don't yet make apps that allow doctors to use the records on a tablet the way they would on a desktop or laptop. To use a mobile device effectively requires a complete redesign of the way information is presented.

ON THE OTHER HAND, Apple has a secret plan to steal your doctor’s heart.

Apple is pushing the iPad into hospitals, playing against its well-polished image as the world’s most successful consumer gadget company, Wired reports.

Apple employee Afshad Mistri is the company’s secret weapon in a stealth campaign to get the iPad into the hands of doctors. (He’s also the guy who in just launched a special iTunes room for healthcare, and promoted it to a select group of healthcare app developers.)

However, the company walks a fine line in the medical arena. The Food and Drug Administration seems set on regulating the software that runs on the iPad, not the device itself, but if the FDA were to decide that Apple is marketing the iPad for regulated medical uses, it could unleash a regulatory nightmare.

Elliot Fishman, a professor of radiology at Johns Hopkins, studies 50 to 100 CT scans per day on his tablet. Recently, he checked up on 20 patients while traveling in Las Vegas. “What this iPad does is really extend my ability to be able to consult remotely anytime, anywhere,” he says.

For some, the iPad can save up to an hour and a half per day – time that would otherwise be spent on collecting paper printouts of medical images or heading to computer workstations to look them up online. Many doctors say that bringing an iPad to the bedside lets them administer a far more intimate and interactive level of care than they’d previously thought possible.

The device has freed up doctors to read papers and look up information no matter where they are.

Some hospitals are getting ready for some big rollouts. The Veterans Administration started soliciting bids from contractors to help them manage as many as 100,000 tablet users across its network of 152 hospitals.

It’s not entirely clear why Apple cares so much about doctors. Why have a guy like Afhsad Mistri spending his days talking to doctors and medical software developers? Why is healthcare the one vertical market that Apple promotes on its iPad apps for business page?

The answer might have to do with the late Steve Jobs. “People in computer science are always interested in medical imaging,” says Fishman, who visited Jobs in 2010. “They always like to think that, you know, maybe Angry Birds is good but something medical might actually change the world.”

From NPR and Wired.

Image: Apple

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure