How the iPhone set the bar for other smartphones in healthcare

iPhones could be considered the technology that truly kick started the mobile revolution in home care. Small, easy to use and powerful, the iPhone was the first smartphone to really capture the attention of physicians, and to develop tools and resources for healthcare.

The interface is "simple and elegant," according to Luis Saldana, associate chief medical information officer for Dallas-based Texas Health Resources. For tech-resistant physicians, the iPhone was "easy to set up out of the box," and software and apps were easy to download and launch through Apple's iTunes store.

So much so, in fact, that it has set the bar for all other mobile devices. Physicians judge the utility of other apps, devices and mobile technology by whether its "as easy as my iPhone," Saldana says.

And it shows. Recent data shows nearly 65 percent of hospitals are supporting iPhone use on their networks, and another 83 percent are supporting its larger cousin, the iPad.  

The iPhone also changed the industry's view of smartphones. The iPhone has developed into a multi-faceted tool, and users now view it as a mini-computer, rather than just a cell phone with some additional functionality, such as email or messaging.

The last two years have seen dozens of developers create add-ons, plug-ins, special lenses, and apps that can turn the iPhone into any number of use-specific healthcare tools, including:

  • Image-viewers: Recent studies have shown that the iPhone can be an acceptable viewer for MRI, X-ray and other images, although with the caveat that it shouldn't be used for primary diagnosis.  
  • Diagnostic tools: Developers have created strips, touchscreen devices and other tools to diagnose everything from malaria to e. coli infection via the iPhone. 
  • Remote monitors: iPhones can read and transmit data from remote monitoring devices. For example, the iPhone has been employed as a scanner to take glucose readings from strips of nanosensors under skin.
  • Microscopes: A cheap, $50 lens turns the iPhone into a field microscope. It's not the same as powerful lab microscopes, but can enlarge images 350 times, which can be more than enough to see tissue abnormalities and even some diseases.

iPhones also have hefty enough processing capacity to access patient records, transmit and view large picture archiving and communication system (PACS) images, and even support electronic prescribing, notes Henry Feldman, chief information architect of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

"Being able to write orders at the bedside when rounding is a huge time saver. It gets the patients the treatments they need sooner, and I'm much less likely to forget what I need," Feldman says. "[Also], having PACS in my hand as I walk around let me discuss a consult with a colleague wherever I am. This saves time and encourages collegiality."

With all these tools--and dozens more on the horizon--the iPhone truly can be credited with bringing doctors into the digital age, and making them excited about mHealth's potential, Saldana says. And don't forget nurses. Hospitals like Sarasota [Fla.] Memorial Hospital has handed iPhones to all its nurses and finds increased productivity and more reliable messaging among RNs, according to CIO Denis Baker.

Another key component in the iPhone revolution in healthcare clearly is consumers. Saldana estimates that of the 7,000 users who access his hospital's MyCare patient portal, 80 to 90 percent do so with iPhones. It was one of the main reasons his team moved early on to enable the hospital's Epic electronic medical record system for iPhones, and later iPads.

And iPhones certainly are upping the ante in terms of patients' expectations, Feldman adds. "Particularly now that patients have access themselves to their data via portals, so often my patients are as up to date as I am on their labs. It would be embarrassing if they have faster access than I did."

The one lagging item on the iPhone agenda continues to be security. iPhone users are famous for finding workarounds, particularly to the strict five-minute lockout screen. Mobile device management tools simply haven't caught up to the rapid-fire development of the iPhone, according to Kevin Hart of Tekserve, an Apple network consulting firm.

Feldman disagrees a bit, saying he's had good luck with "just put[ting] on the lock screen, which encrypts the data on the device and ... set[ting] up remote wipe/locate, which are all free features of the phone."

At the end of the day, the iPhone's popularity may be somewhat eclipsed by the iPad, and its larger screen, Saldana predicts. But not entirely. He sees a future where the two devices are "complementary," with physicians using the iPhone as their own workflow tool, but turning to the iPad for interacting with patients and other clinicians--showing educational materials, video chatting and more.

For complete coverage of the five-year anniversary of the iPhone, please look at these different aspects of how Apple's iconic device changed wireless:

  • How the iPhone impacted the handset industry
  • How Apple changed the way carriers do business
  • What's next for the iPhone?
  • The biggest iPhone controversies
  • The evolution of Apple's iOS software
  • How the iPhone affected the enterprise mobility market