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Doctors, patients drive smartphone use for electronic health records

Physicians love the iPhone. Management loves the BlackBerry. Patients want medical information on their phones. In short, smartphones are changing the health care industry.

Smartphone use is accelerating among patients and physicians, both of whom are using them to access information in electronic health record (EHR) systems and other applications.

The likely appeal, said economist Jane Sarasohn-Kahn -- whose report, "How smartphones are changing health care for consumers and providers," was released last week by the California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) -- is that the devices’ operating systems are more open than previous Web-enabled phones, and can be personalized to a user’s needs and ways of thinking.

The attraction of smartphone use for both groups is so strong, she pointed out, that adoption grew for the devices during the last few years. The upswing came despite a devastating economic climate and the premium prices that carriers charge for service plans compared with traditional cell phones.

Patients appreciate the ability to access both personal health record (PHR) data as well as general health information about symptoms and medications. Physicians, meanwhile, can treat patients on the go, improving productivity and turnaround for patient needs when physicians are not in the office. Both groups are also downloading professional reference apps such as Epocrates Inc.’s drug-interaction database, Sarasohn-Kahn said in an interview with

As such, she predicts that smartphone use will only accelerate during the coming years and shape the health care system’s IT infrastructure as it builds out support for EHR and PHR systems.

[Smartphones] can be an incredible productivity tool … especially in places like ERs and ICUs that have precious little space and scarce resources to spread around.

Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, economist

“There are hospitals already beginning to adopt the iPhone and other smartphones as a base technology for their medical staffs and nursing staffs,” Sarasohn-Kahn said.

Among those working in the medical field, the BlackBerry is the preferred device of administrators and other managers, while doctors and nurses more frequently choose the iPhone. Among medical students -- the future doctors IT staffs will support -- 45% own an iPhone, 15% have a Palm personal digital assistant, 12% use a Palm smartphone and 12% own a BlackBerry, she noted in her report.

“They can be an incredible productivity tool. In hospitals now, that’s the name of the game, especially in places like ERs and ICUs that have precious little space and scarce resources to spread around,” she continued, adding that smartphone use is particularly effective in routing doctors and nurses for patient triage in busy emergency rooms and intensive care units.

Smartphone use is also changing the way patients access medical information.

Young, urban patients with chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes represent a large majority of people accessing hospital services regardless of region, and they do not always have computers. Many, though, use smartphones to access Internet hospital patient portals, as well as general health information on the Web. That information, combined with PHR data, can help patients make healthier decisions and potentially stave off an unnecessary ER visit.

The role of the PC in health care

Among suburban and rural citizens with chronic conditions, especially older patients, personal computers are the preferred device for accessing similar information.

“We know that all people are accessing the Internet in a variety of ways, from a variety of platforms,” said Sarasohn-Kahn, who added that CHCF’s mission is to improve health care access, quality and affordability for the safety net population of vulnerable citizens. “The opportunity to serve the underserved is really exciting when you look at mobile, and in particular what a smartphone can do.”

However, health IT professionals need to remember that the digital divide persists. As smartphone use rises in urban populations, all things are not equal among different socioeconomic strata, and that could lead to conflict. For example, if a county health department rolled out a smartphone app program, it could be charged with discrimination, since patients who lack access to a smartphone could not use the application, Sarasohn-Kahn noted in her report.

Therefore, in the short run, providers should consider text-based mobile health programs accessible to patients with traditional cell phones as well as smartphones, she said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Don Fluckinger, Features Writer.

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