Many chief information officers have smartphones on the top of their 2009 wish list. The compact mobile devices combine online access to information with PDA (personal digital assistant) functionality, making them perfect for on-the-go clinicians.
According to a report by market-research firm Manhattan Research, the number of physicians who own smartphones will increase from 64% to 81% by 2012. The October 2009 report states that the ability to complete tasks remotely will become even more indispensible to physicians in the future.
The devices are becoming the desktop of the future as hardware improves and applications become more sophisticated and robust. Programs that were formerly only available on desktops, such as PACS (picture archiving and communication system), can now easily fit in a physician's hand.
"We're no longer using it as a reference device, we're using it as a computer replacement," says Henry J. Feldman, MD, chief information architect at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Whether your facility provided you with a smartphone or you purchased one as a gift to yourself, the experts say that you can expect to see some innovative trends in mobile health applications making their way to handheld screens next year.
1. Augmented reality
"Augmented reality" is the latest buzzword for smartphones. It describes the ability of users to view real-world structures using the GPS, camera, compass, and other hardware contained in a smartphone. WIKITUDE World Browser is one example of augmented reality.
The browser presents smartphone users with information about their surroundings, such as nearby points of interest. It works by overlaying information on the real-time camera view of a smartphone.
In healthcare, this may mean that one day patients may be able to point a smartphone at a facility and view detailed information, such as a staff directory, phone numbers, and building maps. They may even be able to take virtual tours. Think of it like a high-tech online information desk.
"It would tell you any information you want to have about a building just by where the phone is pointing," says Mark Laytar, a Web production manager at Baltimore-based University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). "It's really interesting."
2. EMR integration
Electronic medical records (EMR) aren't going to stop making headlines. If smartphones have anything to do with the matter, we'll begin seeing applications that integrate a patient's EMR with a physician's smartphone.
PatientKeeper is one such product. The Newton, MA-based company of the same name has developed an application that lets physicians access their EMR systems from a smartphone. Physicians can view a list of patients, a patient summary, lab and test results, medication lists, clinical notes, allergies, and much more.
Naturally, accessing clinical data on a mobile phone will likely raise data security and privacy concerns. Feldman says this problem can be easily solved using encryption technology.
"People have to remember that a smartphone isn't any different than a laptop," he says.
Given the popularity of the application, one can expect EMR companies to develop their own tools in response to this mounting need, especially given the growing number of physicians who are using mobile devices.
3. Image viewing
OsiriX Imaging Software has an open source PACS application available on the iPhone. The company offers free and sophisticated paid versions of the application. Physicians can use the application for PACS tasks they would have ordinarily completed using the OsiriX desktop application.
"It's not a weird sort of hybrid application," says Feldman. "This is a genuine PACS system for your iPhone."
Feldman says he can walk down the hall, run into a colleague, and conduct a consult on the fly by displaying patient CAT scans and animations. It even allows him to annotate images that will sync back to the PACS system.
"It's not diagnostic quality," he admits. "But it's good enough for 90% of what we do."
Feldman says the mobile hospital desktop, a.k.a. "the computer on wheels," is no match for his smartphone, which is always by his side and linked to the hospital network. If he were to use a desktop to conduct a consult, he would need to locate it and wheel the heavy, awkward device where he needs to use it.
"I can do all the things that I normally do on a desktop during my walk down the hall with another physician," says Feldman. "That's a fundamental shift."
The Blausen Human Atlas is another fine example of an imaging application. It provides point-of-care access to animations of medical treatments and conditions, along with accompanying narration. Users can manipulate illustrations and animations. The added zoom capability lets them explore different parts of the body systems.
"If you're a clinician, you can use the atlases as an educational tool with your patients," says Michelle Snyder, senior vice president of subscriptions at San Mateo, CA-based Epocrates, which markets a popular drug and disease reference application.