The smartphone is in
Mobile devices make health information more accessible
When he’s on duty at Enloe Medical Center, Dr. Kevin Brown is literally attached at the hip to his mobile device. He favors the iPad, and it’s so beneficial to him that he fastens it to his belt with carabiner clips.
“It looks really geeky,” said Brown, “but I just write it off and decide I look like a good patient educator.”
Education is a key part of his job as an inpatient hospital physician. Often his patients, too, have mobile devices, and they’ve scoured the Internet or tapped into an app to draw conclusions about their health.
Mobile devices—smartphones and tablets—have added a new element of accessibility to health information. A Pew Institute Study found that 52 percent of smartphone users access health information on their phones. With that accessibility comes rewards as well as risks.
“People have access to more point-of-care stuff, when they’re sitting in a doctor’s office”—or hospital room—“and can get information more quickly,” Brown said. “As for the information they’re getting, that has the same pluses and minuses it’s had for a long time.
“When you give information on a Web page—or, before the Internet era, on a magazine page—the only way you can make it appropriate to the reader is to make sure it’s very general, the lowest common denominator of any health problem. So the information you get that’s truly correct will also seem to be very non-specific.
“So I look at all those places as only a place to start. After that, it’s really a discussion between the patient—or in the case of a pediatrician, the parents—and the physician, so they can get more information that’s specifically tailored to them.”
Roger Brudno agrees. Brudno, the director of medical-library services at Oroville Hospital, sees the potential for misinformation along with education.
“One of the difficulties in getting information, whether using a smartphone or tablet or whatever, is getting reliable information,” he said. “I think patients need them to be educated, to be smart consumers of information the way we want them to be smart consumers of health services. Many hospital websites now have patient information systems so you can get information in a layperson’s language about a whole range of health topics. …
“Most people start by Googling stuff. The problem with Googling is you get everything from your neighbor around the corner complaining about his doctor to authoritative stuff from the Institutes of Health. The onus is really on the information-seeker to find good stuff. Consider the source of information carefully.”
Look for sites from respected institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University, UC San Francisco or Stanford University. Check out medical associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics or the American Academy of Family Physicians. Brudno recommends MedlinePlus from the federal government.
But, again, consider the information to be a discussion point rather than a diagnosis.
“It’s important to have a good curator and a good relationship with your health-care provider,” Brudno said.
Dr. Kevin Dorsey-Tyler, a Chico surgeon who now works in the information technology department at Enloe, is used to patients coming into the office and reciting something they’ve read or been told.
“They will stretch you with things you’ve never heard of,” Dorsey-Tyler said with a laugh.
Fortunately, physicians also have mobile devices at their disposal, with apps and websites tailored to health professionals.
With the move toward electronic medical records, physicians and patients are able to access an ever-growing amount of personal information. Scans, X-rays and test results all can be shared wirelessly. Patients and doctors also can communicate by email, or by text message if they wish.
The latter possibilities raise issues of privacy, and Dorsey-Tyler encourages caution. While in practice, he launched a website that included a portal for communication. He wouldn’t use direct email.
“The problem with emailing in general is email is not a secure mode of communication, nor are Facebook, Twitter and other things people use,” he explained. “All are open, discoverable and are certainly not secure. If you start putting medical information into a Yahoo email, Yahoo has a copy of all that. So you’ve got to be very careful with email in regard to patient privacy.”
Privacy is one feature Brown values with his iPad.
“The iPad runs only one application at once,” he said, “and that lack of ability to multitask means you can’t have another program in the background capturing information as you’re using it. And when I use the iPad to access medical records, I do so through an interface, so there won’t be persistent information on my device—so if I lose it, even though it has its own security features, there will be no personal information for someone to steal.”
Security is something patients should keep in mind, too, because more and more apps consolidate personal information. Some allow patients to create their own electronic medical record. Others track diet, weight and exercise patterns. In the future, mobile devices may even become the real-world equivalent of “Star Trek” tricorders—portable diagnostic scanners.
Sound far-fetched? Well, according to The Economist, the Qualcomm Foundation is offering $10 million in prize money to spur innovations in tricorder technology. Already, Brudno says, the iPhone works with an electrocardiogram apparatus.
“Pretty cool stuff is happening,” Brudno said, “not just with smartphones, but also in general for patients to be better informed. That’s really the key—it’s not so much the device you use, because that’s the gateway, but it’s the quality of information and how you use it.”