Trendspotter: Apple iPad is Already Attracting Physician Attention

February 10, 2010

The new Apple iPad is causing a stir in the medical world, even though no electronic medical record software has yet been designed specifically for it.

The new Apple iPad is causing a stir in the medical world, even though no electronic medical record software has yet been designed specifically for it. One indication of this interest comes from a physician survey by Epocrates, a leading vendor of software for mobile devices. Of the respondents to this poll, conducted just before the iPad’s launch, 9 percent said they would buy one immediately. Another 13 percent said they would get an iPad within a year, and 38 percent said they were interested in the product but needed more information to make a decision. 

One reason for physicians’ curiosity about the iPad is that it uses the same operating system and has the same finger-activated pressure screen as the iPhone and the iPod Touch. According to Epocrates, which has just announced its compatibility with the iPad, more than one of five physicians is using its applications on either of those devices. The fact that the iPad’s screen size is almost as big as a full-size tablet’s doesn’t hurt, nor does its svelte weight (just 1.5 pounds).

Moreover, the basic features of the iPad - Web access, e-mail, photos, video and music playback, electronic books, and access to 140,000 applications - probably appeal to tech-savvy docs. But many physicians are also intrigued by the idea that the iPad might someday be used for EMRs and various modes of inpatient documentation and ordering.

According to Satish Misra at iMedicalApps:

“Rumors abound that Apple is already pitching the iPad in LA-area hospitals as the replacement for the old physician clipboard. For outpatient practices already running a Mac-based EMR, MacPractice has already announced development plans for an iPad interface. According to their press release, they plan to develop apps that will allow patients to fill out registration, medical history, and other forms on the iPad. For physicians, it will integrate with the MacPractice EMR to manage schedules, view patient records, and even enter clinical notes.”
Read moreHowever, Misra notes, most EMRs run on the Windows operating system; while there’s already a Citrix application that allows an iPad to use Windows as a dumb terminal, that would eliminate the cool interface that is the iPad’s biggest selling point. Also, the iPad has no digital handwriting capability. And its handwriting recognition probably has to be better than that of the “digital ink” in tablet PCs, which some physicians find too slow and clunky, Misra says.

I’d also point that there’s a problem with the iPad’s lack of a keyboard. Although many physicians like pressure screens and the ability to scroll or select with their fingers, a certain amount of typing (or, alternatively, dictation with voice recognition software) is inevitable when documenting visits in an EMR. The iPad features an onscreen keyboard, but physicians have found such keyboards to be only marginally usable in other computer tablets. You can also tap on an external keyboard when the iPad is in its docking station, but that is not a portable feature.

A few other drawbacks should also be mentioned: While the iPad contains a rechargeable battery, it cannot be removed and exchanged with a fresh battery. If you believe that the iPad battery will go 10 hours without a charge, as Apple claims, that’s probably sufficient for daily use with an EMR. But some observers are skeptical about that. And a survey of physicians conducted by Software Advice about the features physicians desire in a tablet shows that the iPad falls short in several areas:

“It lacks a large number of features that healthcare professionals deemed important, such as resistance to dust and hospital fluids and disinfectants (the iPad does not have sealed ports); fingerprint access to the system (HIPAA compliance); barcode scanning (patient safety); and an integrated camera (documenting diagnosis). In fact, you could argue that the iPad’s difficulty in being disinfected or kept clean of hospital fluids is a deal breaker for healthcare workers.”

Of course, conventional tablets also have problems, including the fact that most are heavier and have a shorter battery life than the iPad does. But many physicians like tablets and have had success in using them with their EMRs. Whether or not the iPad becomes a major competitor in the EMR space will probably depend on whether Apple adds some new physician-friendly features and on the willingness of EMR vendors to write applications for the Apple operating system.