Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Smartphones start doing the rounds

Doctors using iPhone, H Sharma
Smartphones are catching on with US doctors

By Harsha Sharma

Pagers have for long been considered the doctor's sidekick but in the United States, as hospitals face pressure for greater efficiency, smartphones are taking over.

The emerging industry of smartphone health technologies has caught the attention of Apple and Research in Motion (RIM), maker of the BlackBerry phone, as they see an opportunity to push their devices further.

It is estimated that 64% of US doctors currently own smartphones, according to analyst firm Manhattan Research. The firm predicts the figure will rise to 81% by 2012 when mobile data access will be indispensable for medical professionals.

"Smartphones can help physicians consolidate the number of existing devices currently used in hospitals. As well as receiving and transmitting alerts and pages, they can also enhance the functionality by layering collaboration tools on top of pages or in reaction to alerts", says Brian Dolan, editor of MobiHealthNews.

Fast data

Many see the appeal of smartphones extends beyond replacing pagers. While most of the estimated 1,500 medical apps available are reference guides such as Epocrates - there are a growing number which provide access to patient data or lab results.

Ambulance, Corbis
Data about a patient's condition can reach a hospital before they do

One such app, AirStrip OB, was show at the 2009 Apple Worldwide Developers' Conference. The app lets obstetricians access maternal and foetal data remotely on an iPhone or Blackberry. AirStrip Technologies says more than 100 hospitals are subscribed to its software suite across the US.

"When a doctor is temporarily away from the patient's bedside and a nurse needs them to look at this vital waveform data, or they want to proactively check on a patient, they can be on the system in under 10 seconds regardless of location," says Dr Cameron Powell, head of AirStrip.

Certain apps, such as mVisum, even allow ambulances to send EKG images and patient data directly to doctors' BlackBerrys ahead of their arrival at the hospital.

The Memorial Hermann Healthcare System in Texas is using iPhone medical apps throughout its 13 hospitals. Dr Robert Murphy, chief medical informatics officer, believes smartphone technology has improved quality of care throughout its locations.

"It is amazing how much this technology begins to change culture. When communications and information flow are limited, too often a culture of distrust develops. But with improved communications and information sharing, feelings of greater teamwork and collaboration soon follow."

Older patients

However, the rise of smartphone healthcare comes amid added concern about patient privacy. Although apps such as AirStrip OB and mVisum are approved by the FDA (The Food and Drugs Administration) and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), some critics remain sceptical about data security.

Vital signs monitor, PA
Patient groups are worried about what happens to medical data

"The problems are common to all mobile devices: encryption at rest on the device and in transit, and whether data on lost or stolen devices can be easily accessed," says Deborah Peel, founder of US watchdog organisation - Patient Privacy Rights.

On a practical level, smartphones can be very dirty in clinical settings as most cannot be easily disinfected. The smaller screen size also limits the type of data that can be viewed.

"Smartphones can replace pagers and some say laptops, but smartphones are not a panacea device for healthcare. Devices with larger screens are still needed for reviewing detailed diagnostic images and analyzing data. When it comes to quick reference and enhanced collaboration, however, other devices can't compete", says Mr Dolan from MobiHealthNews.

For now in the UK it seems the NHS is more concerned about seeing future smartphone use in community care rather than in hospitals.

"The devices could be very useful in the community for patients managing long term illnesses particularly those over the age of 75," said George McGinnis of NHS Connecting for Health. "But the technology needs to be highly adapted so it is more accessible for those who are not currently using smartphones."

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