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iPad stoking doctor interest in tablet computers

A practical look at information technology issues and usage

By Pamela Lewis Dolan covered health information technology issues and social media topics affecting physicians. Connect with the columnist: @Plewisdolan  —  Posted Feb. 22, 2010.

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If the launch of the iPad has done anything, it has brought legitimacy to the tablet computer, a product that has long been considered the redheaded stepchild of computing.

It could be because of the buzz over Apple's latest offering, or because physicians who have grown to love their smartphones also recognize their limitations in a clinical setting. But more physicians than ever -- more than 50%, according to a recent survey by Software Advice -- say they are now considering buying a tablet. A separate survey by Epocrates, whose medical software has been a popular smartphone download, found that one in five physicians are planning specifically to purchase an iPad.

But experts say doctors shouldn't jump on the iPad bandwagon without exploring other options.

Despite the big splash from iPad, several other recently introduced tablets also should be considered, experts say. At January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, more than a dozen tablets were unveiled. And if physicians really assess what characteristics they need in a tablet, Software Advice found that the iPad may deliver on only a few.

Software Advice, a free service that gives information on computer systems, surveyed 178 doctors, nurses, medical students and health IT professionals in early February to get an idea of what the ideal tablet for the health care industry would look like, and if the iPad would fit the bill. Out of 10 must-have features, the iPad delivered on four.

The survey found ease of use to be the No. 1 feature users sought in a tablet. Because of the touch screen format, which many have used on their iPhones, the iPad could deliver on ease-of-use concerns. But so could a touch screen tablet introduced by Hewlett-Packard Co. that is expected to launch later in 2010.

Richard Knight, president and CEO of Medical Business Systems, an Elmsford, N.Y.-based information technology consulting company, said the ability to point and click (or touch, as it were) to open an application is much easier than the process of manually opening each application, required on most tablets that mimic desktop computers. This is a primary concern for physicians who would be using the device on the go.

The other "must have" features physicians want, and that the iPad delivers on, are Wi-Fi access, lightweight hardware and an ergonomic design.

For many physicians who have integrated Apple iPhones into their workday, the fact that a tablet basically can do all an iPhone can but on a bigger screen is also a major draw. But there are many functions important to health care that the iPhone doesn't have -- and the iPad won't, either.

Features deemed "must-have" in Software Advice's survey that the iPad will not include are: resistance to dust and liquids; fingerprint access; barcode scanning; RFID reader; voice-to-text dictation; and an integrated camera.

But just as developers have proven with the iPhone, if there's something you want the device to do, chances are someone will create an application to do it. The iPad's ability to run third-party applications will let users customize their devices to accomplish many of the tasks they want.

"The iPad is exciting for power mobile users or for physicians who want more detailed content or longer content on a portable device, so I see a strong potential there," said Monique Levy, senior director of research for Manhattan Research. Not only will physicians be able to read journal articles online on their devices, she said, but they also could use them to look at detailed graphics such as x-rays and access an electronic medical records system.

When it comes to medical software, however, the most commonly used programs are Windows-based and not available on an Apple platform. The technology company Citrix thinks it has solved this problem for iPad users. It created a virtual desktop to allow applications or programs -- even those that are Windows-based -- that live on a desktop computer to be accessed remotely. The company has an iPhone application that does the same thing, but it says the screen size of the iPhone has restricted the usability.

But, warns Chris Thorman, social media manager for Software Advice, remote access likely will cause the software to run much more slowly than if it actually lived on the devices themselves.

There will be at least one EMR program that will live on the iPad. Thomas Giannulli, MD, developer of iChart, an EMR for the iPhone, is working on an iPad version and hopes to launch it shortly after the iPad is made available in two months. Unlike other mobile EMR applications, iChart lives on the device, so the reliability of the cellular network won't impact its ability to function properly.

But even if the device has all the features you want or need, it still might be wise to wait, experts warn.

In the survey by Epocrates, which developed a mobile drug reference tool for smartphones that it plans to expand to the iPad, 9% of physicians said they planned to buy an iPad when it is released in March; another 13% plan to buy it within a year. But 38% said they are interested but will wait for more information before finalizing their decision.

Scott Testa, PhD, professor of business administration at Cabrini College in Philadelphia, said he thinks the 38% are doing the right thing. "I think it's important that they probably not be the earliest adopters." He advised waiting until Apple has "come out with the second version to make sure most of the bugs are worked out."

"Usually the first people who adopt these products go through a little bit more pain that those that wait a little bit," Testa said. "I think that's true for many technology products."

Pamela Lewis Dolan covered health information technology issues and social media topics affecting physicians. Connect with the columnist: @Plewisdolan  — 

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External links

"Healthcare Wants a Tablet, But Not Apple's iPad," Software Advice survey results, posted Feb. 4 (link)

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