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Summit co-founder: Tablets could fly as health care uber-smartphones

Will tablets like the iPad and HP Slate -- now tweener devices between a laptop and smartphone -- end up being more like one or the other? An mHealth Summit co-founder weighs in.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When it comes to mobile health devices like smartphones and tablets, it's all about the screen's real estate, said Dr. Kristin Tolle, one of the founders of the mHealth Summit taking place here in the nation's capital. As such, tablets have a potentially significant future in health care in this country -- not as laptop replacements at first, but more along the lines of smartphones on steroids.

Tolle, who also is director of Microsoft's Natural User Interactions team, discussed tablets and mobile health technology in an interview with SearchHealthIT.com after she conducted a keynote session with Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Among her duties, she helps fund research projects for next-generation sensor technology and natural-language speech software with an eye toward getting users up and running with a minimal learning curve.

"I think they will become indispensible because of the screen size, as long as the weight reduction happens," Tolle said of the new crop of tablets including the Apple iPad, Hewlett-Packard Slate, and such Android devices as the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Dell Streak. Physicians will use them for the same functions they use their smartphones for today, she believes.

I think we're going to be pushing that technology to where things get smaller, and that the power of a laptop is going to be in the size of a slate.

Kristin Tolle, director, Microsoft's Natural User Interactions team

That will pose a challenge to software developers, Tolle said. The trick they will need to pull at first will be making applications that work on both smartphones and tablets, but when used on the tablet, will take advantage of the larger screen real estate. Then, as more robust tablets emerge on the market, they will be closer to -- but not quite substitutes for -- laptops.

"[The Galaxy already] is almost a fully functional device; it even has wireless, and I can make a call from it," Tolle said. "It's a lot closer than some of the slates that have come out that are very minimal. I think we're going to be pushing that technology to where things get smaller, and that the power of a laptop is going to be in the size of a slate. I think that's absolutely the direction where we're going to be heading."

As for other mHealth devices, sensors will become inexpensive to the point where consumers will purchase many different kinds of high-performance, low-cost wireless monitoring devices that boast long battery life, she predicts. Exhibitors were previewing some of these devices at the conference.

These home monitoring devices will port information back to health care providers. Insurers will gladly reimburse them because patients who can take charge of their own health based on feedback from the devices will make fewer visits to the doctor and help the bottom line. On the macro level, that's how mHealth can help meet the U.S. Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology's, or ONC's, twin goals of increasing health care quality while reducing costs through technology.

Tolle also made the point that while consumers may initially have privacy concerns about the data these monitoring devices send to doctor's offices (which will use the data to make insurance claims), it will only be a matter of cultural adjustment. Those concerns should ebb when insurers prove to be disinterested in the data itself and interested only in patient outcomes.

"They don't even want the data," Tolle said. "They'll say, 'You wear that body sensor. I don't want the data, I'm not going to violate your privacy. What I want is for you to take care of yourself, so I don't have to pay out.'"

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

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