When I was a medical student in the mid-2000s, I witnessed the early phases of mobile apps designed to help deliver healthcare. They were mostly electronic books, in the form of preloaded web pages. We’ve come a long way: I’m now a practicing physician and I find myself using an increasing number of mobile health apps (I’ve even built one). There are currently 20,000 apps under the medical category in replace substituted for bulky paper tools, and they will increasingly transform a physician’s daily workflow.
I started using electronic tools to decrease the weight of my pocket tools when I was a medical student. For this purpose, medical apps continue to excel. Medical calculators, pharmacopoeias, reference apps, and note-taking programs are now the modern substitute for many of yesterday’s bulky tools. It’s much easier to open Epocrates or NEJM This Week on a smartphone than it is to get (and carry) a paper copy of the latest medical recommendations. Mobile tools have also eased the Sisyphean task of updating one’s medical knowledge. Reading medical literature, long relegated to late weeknights or weekend mornings, can now happen as part of the workflow with apps like Read by QxMD or Feedly. For hospital-based physicians like me, this alone is an impressive convenience.
Granted, we have a ways to go before we have widespread adoption of these technologies: the Canadian Medical Association recently released a survey indicating that physicians have not rapidly adopted social media. Less than a quarter of Canadian physicians are engaging with social media tools, even outside their clinical practice. The uptake of medical apps by healthcare professionals has been similarly slow, indicating the obvious room for growth.
But I’m starting to see signs that we may be moving toward a tipping point. As an advisor at a recent medical hackathon, I witnessed the creation of a program that translates a set of faxed lab results into a modern-looking smartphone interface. In this mobile app, the user can swipe across the screen to file the results as green (normal), yellow (borderline, requiring follow up), or red (critical, requiring immediate intervention with an option to automatically notify the patient by email). I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to see more innovative applications like this in the future, as these are the ones likely to be widely used.
The innovations that create meaningful changes are often ones that replace an inconvenient task, the way eBay and Amazon revolutionized the shopping experience. Mobile healthcare solutions that eliminate outdated workflows will undoubtedly engage the healthcare community. In many cases, mobile tools ought to improve physician-patient communication, as well as transform a desk-anchored task to a comfortable mobile one. This could, for example, start with transforming EMRs from clumsy, non-physician oriented designs to be a natural part of patient care. We need a revolution with EMRs, and I am confident it will happen soon.
A potential objection raised in discussions on the digitization of medicine is that the practice of medicine is an inherently offline interaction, and encroachment into this relationship may drive a wedge between doctor and patient. Personally, I don’t think these tools necessarily divide doctors and patients. When implemented correctly, technology should bring people together. The best tools will add opportunities for interactions, not convert in-person interaction to online interactions. These new tools will be universally exciting for physicians and patients. The future is almost here, and I can’t wait to see what it will bring.