BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — An increasing number of physicians across the country are turning to their smart phones and tablets for clinical purposes that range from diagnosis to dictation.
The mobile devices are revolutionizing the manner in which some physicians approach — and deliver — health care.
Dr. Steven Arbogast, a neurologist at Billings Clinic, frequently uses his smart phone and a $2.99 application, Neuro Toolkit, to help assess stroke patients in the ER.
"The apps allow physicians to have immediate access to information that previously would have been contained in textbooks and journal articles," Arbogast said. "The apps now allow us to have that information at our fingertips in real time."
Gone are the days when a physician would exit an exam room to privately consult a journal or textbook, both of which likely contained outdated information.
With the advent of smart phones and apps, a physician quickly can access current databases about drugs and diseases, saving time and improving efficiency.
Arbogast said he uses apps for "everything," including updated treatment options, the latest research, drug interactions, and appropriate treatment dosages.
"It would be easier to say there's nothing I don't look up," he said.
Applications for physicians are nothing new, but they are becoming more sophisticated and their numbers are skyrocketing.
In the early days of apps, they were essentially reference books converted to an electronic format, Arbogast said.
Today, there are apps designed specifically for pediatricians, cardiologists, neurologists and more.
Many have imaging, video, sounds and pictures.
"A picture is worth 1,000 words," Arbogast said.
Whether the applications improve healthcare delivery isn't known, Arbogast said, as the effects of apps on healthcare haven't been studied.
Technology, and the explosion of apps, has become so commonplace that many hospitals, including Billings Clinic, now have chief medical information officers on staff. A CMIO essentially serves as the bridge between medical and information technology departments at a health care organization. This person may also be referred to as the director of medical informatics or health informatics.
Arbogast is one of three chief medical informatics officers at Billings Clinic.
"In today's modern medicine, you have to be able to manage data and keep up on resources and apps," Arbogast said.
Apps are so commonplace among physicians that the Apple App Store has a specific collection titled, "Apps for the healthcare professional." It is found in the Medical Category. There also is a Medical App Journal, an independent website created by and for medical professionals.
Some physicians are slower to jump on the app bandwagon, but for those training in medical schools and residency programs, they are a classroom staple. Arbogast, 38, for example, said he used them as a medical student and has been using apps for the past 10 years. He doesn't know life without them.
Dr. Roxanne Fahrenwald, program director for the Montana Family Medicine Residency Program at RiverStone Health, said residency programs have long been early adopters of technology.
The transformative technology was cellphones, Fahrenwald said, allowing easy communication without pagers, quarters for pay phones, and the ability to travel away from a fixed phone when on call.
"Now (smartphones) are fully functional computers and combine communication with web browsing and multimodal communication options — all in your pocket," Fahrenwald said.
While apps are helpful and are intended to augment and complement a physician's knowledge, they are not meant to replace the professional.
"Doctors still need what we call our clinical acumen, our ability to assess the patient's situation," Arbogast said. "The apps let us make sure that there is nothing else we should be doing so we don't miss some unclear diagnosis."
St. Vincent Healthcare officials did not respond to repeated requests for information about physicians using apps there.
Though many physicians use apps, they are still in the minority. There is still a long way to go when it comes to the widespread and systematic use of health information technology by physicians in the United States, according to a recent survey from the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.
A report based on the survey, titled "Physician Adoption of Health Information Technology," noted that the "adoption of HIT.remains a work in progress in many communities."
The survey also found that only four in 10 physicians are currently using mobile health (or mHealth) technology, even though it interests many of them and could help them do their jobs more quickly and efficiently.