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Pocket Doctor: How Smartphones Can Transform Health Care

19 January 2012
By Marguerite McNeal

So your doctor wants to see an ultrasound? View a CT scan or MRI? Check for potentially harmful drug interactions among up to 30 drugs at a time? Chances are there’s an app for that.

The Archives of Internal Medicine recently published a study estimating that 80 percent of doctors will own smartphones by the end of 2012, and the opportunities to use those devices in the field grow every day. Mobile health, or mHealth, is transforming the health–care industry and may bring cheaper care to patients around the world.

MIM Software Inc., a Cleveland company that specializes in imaging solutions for radiologists and oncologists, sells an app for physicians to view MRI and CT scans on their iPhones and iPads.

In the Philippines, health workers use cell phones to evaluate amputee cases. Trained professionals take pictures, key in patient information and send it back to the Philippines General Hospital, where doctors give advice on the use of prostheses from afar.

“Normally you have to bring patients in and get them in front of big fancy machines,” said Ron Sconyers, president and CEO of Physicians for Peace, noting the difficulties of transferring patients and health workers back and forth in a nation of more than 1,700 islands. “It takes multiple steps out of the process.”

In 2012 the organization will teach the technology to students in the prosthetics and orthotics degree program at the University of the East in Manila.

Medical students around the globe are learning to incorporate mobile health applications into their education. At Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, students can access the colossal Harisson’s Manual of Medicine, a thousand–page reference guide, from their iPhones.

“As time goes by, more and more resources are becoming available in a mobile optimized format,” said Mark Berendsen, an electronic service librarian at Feinberg who manages the mobile applications available.

Popular among students, Davis’s Drug Guide provides information on thousands of brand name and generic drugs including indications, adverse reactions, recommended dosage, and patient instructions.

Pocket Doctor: How Smartphones Can Transform Health CareDoctors can access a wealth of medical information with a swipe of their finger across an iPhone. Mobile apps are transforming the healthcare industry.

In a growing industry that includes thousands of health–care apps, how do medical students and professionals choose which ones to use? “They look to authority,” Berendsen said. “Who is behind the resource? Usually it’s mobile versions of trusted textbooks and resources that are already available in other formats.”

Doctors who subscribe to medical resource packages from Epocrates, a California–based company that provides digital care technology, can take pictures of unknown pills that a patient may have, and their phone will identify the drug for them. Dr. Thomas Giannulli, chief medical information officer at Epocrates, uses the company’s technology in his own practice to submit a patient’s prescription from his iPhone. The drug information simultaneously appears on his phone when he writes the prescription.

He said the company works closely with the FDA, so if there’s a drug recall, Epocrates immediately sends a notification to all of its clients.

While Epocrates focuses on medical references and point–of–care applications that doctors can use during consultations, start–up tech firms are finding new uses for smartphones altogether.

In October, start–up company Mobisante released a device that converts a smartphone into an ultrasound machine and is available to qualified medical professionals. Cleared by the FDA, the MobiUS system features a handheld device that performs the ultrasound, which then appears on a doctor’s phone.

Despite its potential to reduce costs and increase accessibility, the mHealth industry has its obstacles. Spotty cell phone coverage, patient privacy and FDA approval are among the challenges.

Ron Sconyers is not discouraged and said he hopes to expand Physicians for Peace’s use of smartphone technology to programs in Haiti and beyond. “It’s going to change the shape and progression of health care.”

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