Merck Manuals’ Robert Porter: Mobile tech a ‘must have’ for docs

Doctor patient
Robert Porter

A new Merck Manuals survey reveals nearly three-quarters of physicians view themselves as tech-savvy. Two-thirds (66 percent) say they are using a mobile device to access data in the professional setting more than 10 times a day, with 80 percent stating that mobile data plays a role in diagnosis or treatment. Eighty-one percent of respondents say they believe mobile tech has changed the office visit dynamic.

To gain deeper insight on the survey findings, and the impact mobile technology is having on the physician-patient experience, FierceMobileHealthcare reached out to Robert Porter, editor-in-chief of the Merck Manuals. Porter views mobile technology as an enhancement of, but not a replacement for, the patient-doctor relationship.

FierceMobileHealthcare: The survey’s findings are very positive regarding mobile health technology compared to past surveys and studies that cite how physicians sometimes are leery of using such tools. What do you see as the prime factor in those responses?

Robert Porter: There are two factors: An increased reliance on mobile devices in general, and a greater availability of credible digital medical information resources.

Physicians, like others, are now using mobile devices in nearly every aspect of their personal lives, from checking traffic and weather to finding a good restaurant to handling banking and shopping. It has become second nature for people to reach for their mobile device to answer almost any question. Now that essentially all tried-and-true medical references are available digitally, it is natural physicians should also use mHealth tools in their practice.

Similarly, because patients are also now comfortable with turning to digital devices for information, they are accepting of physicians using their devices to seek and share information. Both patients and physicians understand the effectiveness of using a mobile device as a visual aid to help explain information, and all have the expectation that digital sources will provide the most current information.

FMH: Were you surprised by any of the survey results?

Porter: We expected to find many physicians using mobile technology in the office to some degree, but even we were surprised that two-thirds are using mobile devices more than 10 times a day. This underscores how critical mobile technology has become; it has shifted from a “nice to have” to a “must have.”

FMH: What benefits can mobile health technology bring to the patient-doctor relationship? Conversely, what detriments does it potentially pose?

Porter: There is more pressure than ever for doctors to fit more patients into their days and to operate more efficiently. In many cases, this has necessitated a decrease in the visit time. Mobile health technology is a bridge, not a barrier, to the patient-doctor relationship. Such tools allow patients to learn about their symptoms and health conditions before visiting their doctor. This often propels them to ask more meaningful questions and to more readily understand the doctor’s answers.

The downside is the vast amount of medical content available online for patients. Much of this content is confusing and some incorrect. Many patients don’t know where to search or which sites to trust and can easily be misled and misinformed. It then becomes the physician’s job to course correct patients’ misperceptions and then direct them to trusted resources for future research, which can add time and complexity to the visit.

For physicians, mobile technology enables quick access to resources like drug prescribing information and interaction guides when recommending treatments, clearly explains and illustrates ailments with photos and videos, and sends information directly to patients for further reading, as a follow-up, all of which help make appointments more efficient and effective.

FMH: How do you foresee mobile technology in healthcare evolving over the next 10 years?

Porter: One significant advance we may see is improved ability to handle natural language queries--not only for devices to understand questions but for tools to be able to research multiple sources and integrate results into a single answer. Embedding this capability into medical record systems would then allow search and result to be very patient-specific, although it also would require more attention to information security

Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.