Medical Apps: Pocket to Practice

Vast connectedness and mobile access to infinite archives of information may be calling cards of the smartphone, but as microchip and touch-screen technology continues improving and mobile app functionality becomes increasingly more powerful, they're becoming viable replacements to full-on desktop computers in many industries. A tool with quick internal computing speed, a connection to the internet and work-specific software all contained within a single pocket-sized device seems an obvious wonder-tool for physicians though. It allows them to quickly access cloud-based patient files, to reference an archive of drug interactions and symptom data and even transfer specific data to other mobile users within the command chain, streamlining workflow throughout.

These, and an endless host of other functions in and out of the healthcare industry, are made possible by apps. You already know this of course, as the data suggests it. A physician's news article (Five Great Medical Apps for Doctors; Surgeons) reports that 9 of every 10 physicians are actively utilizing smartphones in their daily practice. The app market's full to bursting too, with roughly 44,000 medical apps alone, currently available for download.

As it stands, drug reference ranks as the most popular medical app function, according to a Modern Healthcare report. However, medical apps also stake their claim in their ability to communicate health information between physicians or directly to patients, to facilitate reference to giant tomes of health information or even to create reminder programs to help in monitoring treatment schedules and regimen. Epocrates, Medscape and UptoDate all began as desktop computer programs in the 1990's, but have since become the three most downloaded medical apps.

The reality is that apps are becoming increasingly more integrated into the daily healthcare model, transitioning from a simple access point of information to actually doing medicine in various capacities. Diagnostics, telemetry and even therapy have moved into the forefront as physicians and patients alike can use smartphone and mobile devices to perform tasks as varied as recording vital signs and levels to performing ultrasounds via Bluetooth technology.

Besides the obvious...

Besides all the gadgety zips and whistles though, how are mobile apps really making changes in the day to day happenings of the working physician's day?

For one, they're streamlining workflow and lending greater remote capabilities to these physicians. Apps can keep a working physician in direct communication with a laboratory, an assistant, another physician and even a patient without them even having to leave the office, make a call or write an email. Think about the technical benefits there. In a KevinMD article (Medical Apps: We're Approaching the Tipping Point) Joe Flower describes an app that syncs with a Bluetooth-connected pill. The pill sends a signal to the application when it has been swallowed, a compelling technological hybrid of internal and telemedicine.

Costs

With apps, we can dispense with the buttery fluff and chew right into the meaty core of the matter: Medical apps are incredibly cost effective. If physicians can find competent apps with legitimate in-clinic capabilities, they're often more effective than desktop programs and they're certainly more mobile. Apps tend to flourish on the premise that they're small programs that are easy to download and even easier to use. The more user-friendly an app, the more popular it tends to be, so wary physicians can comparison shop, keeping a keen eye for those apps which have been downloaded more than others and which have high star ratings.

When they're easy and intuitive, the time-consuming process of training to learn new software is trimmed, and multiple physicians within a practice can get on the same technical page quickly and without workflow holdups. This user-friendly construction also means they'll integrate more smoothly into a practice, eliminating wasted time spent trying to acclimate into something complicated. Accordingly, there's substantially less risk in introducing them into the practice than there is with other software.

This premise alone, to seamlessly test out new applications should catch physicians' collective attention. Quickly and painlessly easing new apps in and out of their own healthcare equation gives small or medium-sized practices a tremendous autonomy in how they can structure their organization for maximum profit and efficiency.

From a raw cost standpoint, mobile apps reign supreme in the economical software kingdom. They're low-cost, (often free) and any developer can make an app, creating a wide open market for technical possibilities you can snatch immediately from the cloud. Sure, they're certainly not all essential, but a few bucks for a medical program that can improve a physician's entire practice isn't anything to take lightly.

Certain (Workable) Disadvantages

Mobile apps hold the exciting potential of shaking up the physician-patient relationship, allowing physicians to quickly and easily monitor their patients' treatment schedules with just a few screen taps on their mobile phone. There are a few other obstacles regarding in-clinic app usage though.

One is the worry that a patient, seeing a physician fumbling on their smart phone or tablet during the actual office visit, might present the impression that they've been "stumped" and are having to look up information.

It might lend the appearance of disengagement from the visit and the patient by default. One workaround for this, that can strengthen the patient-physician relationship, is for physicians to frankly and openly explain just why they're using their phone. For example, "Let's see. I'm accessing some notes from our last visit right now," will help the patient feel "in the loop" and not shut out from the in-office process.

One other disadvantage, or factor, throwing off a widespread fanatical integration of mobile apps is that some physicians simply don't want to fore-go their traditional methods in favor of something they might conceive as "flash in the pan." It's a valid concern, rooted in the idea that an entire cultural landscape can transform with just a few technological steps forward, and we may be only riding the crest of that wave, with plenty of other technologies to come.

The Affordable Care Era

One hard reality is that within the world of medicine since the advent of Affordable Care legislation, medicine efficiency has become a pressing issue. This is, of course, to account for greater patient access to medical care and more crowded schedules. It also means that insurance rates are becoming increasingly more dependent on Relative Value Units (RVU's) as a determining factor in how they'll reimburse a physician. Any technology that can allow physicians greater technical resources to serve more patients in a smaller amount of time, is prescient.

This is certainly not a suggestion that mobile app technology could serve as a complete replacement for all medical technologies --not any time in the immediate future at least. It is a suggestion that as we react to new needs created within the healthcare industry, mobile app technology will become an even more common tool in the day-to-day dealings of the family practice unit.

"Create a need they didn't know they had" is the age-old adage of every business venture. Physician's needs are changing, and mobile app technology can fill these gaps.

References

Broker, Brad. "Five Great Medical Apps For Doctors, Surgeons."

Physicians News. Physiciansnews.com, 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Flower, Joe. "Medical Apps: We Are Approaching the Tipping Point."

KevinMD.com. Kevin MD, 7 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Husain, Iltifat, M.D. "The Top 10 Free Medical Apps."

Physiciansweekly.com. Physician's Weekly, 27 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.