Doctors and Medical Students Embrace Smartphones

By Sindya N. Bhanoo
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

To his frustration, Steven Schwartz often encounters patients who have no idea what each of the pills they've been popping is called.

"But usually they can tell you what it looks like," the Georgetown University Medical Center family practitioner said. "They might say it's a blue, triangular pill for hypertension."

Armed with an iPhone, Schwartz is able to play detective.

He uses an application called Epocrates to input pill characteristics, such as color, shape and clarity. The software replies with a list of medications and images that match those criteria, allowing him to deduce what the patient is taking.

Schwartz says his iPhone has become indispensable: He uses it to pull up instructional diagrams and videos for patients, write electronic prescriptions and check basic information, with the patient beside him.

" 'This is how often you need a colonoscopy,' I'll say to a patient," Schwartz said. "I'm just double-checking on my phone to make sure I don't make a mistake."

Doctors are also using smartphones to look up drug-to-drug interactions, to view X-rays and MRI scans, and even to stream music from the Internet during surgery.

The power and versatility of smartphones, Schwartz said, is leading more doctors to abandon their pagers and PDAs. Of the various smartphones on the market, such as the ones made by BlackBerry and T-Mobile, the iPhone's graphic, audio, video and memory capabilities are helping it take the lead in the medical field.

Schwartz's use of his iPhone speaks to a larger trend: Nationally, about 64 percent of doctors are now using smartphones, according to a recent report by the market research company Manhattan Research.

At George Washington University Hospital and the Johns Hopkins Health System, BlackBerrys are more popular than iPhones among physicians, according to officials at both institutions. Of the 700-plus smartphones in use by doctors, nurses and other hospital staff members at Johns Hopkins, only about 5 percent are iPhones, said Mike McCarty, the chief network officer at Hopkins; the rest are BlackBerrys. Although there are many applications being developed for the iPhone (the iTunes app store lists 674 applications related to medicine available), a lot of medical software used at Hopkins runs on the Windows operating system, which is what the BlackBerry uses, McCarty said.

McCarty believes that smartphones will soon assume a permanent place in medicine. "I think over time we will be replacing pagers with these devices," he said. "Every clinician I meet says they want to be carrying one device, rather than two or three."

Georgetown's medical school recently required students, after their first year, to use an iPhone or iPod Touch, which is essentially an iPhone without phone capabilities. The school receives a bulk discount on the devices and builds the cost into students' tuition. Students had pushed for such a requirement, according to Schwartz, and they use the devices to look up information during clinical rotations, to study medical vocabulary and to take quizzes.

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