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Tablet ComputerBertha Coombs at CNBC reported that there are two things Dr. Larry Nathanson can’t work without when he’s on duty in the emergency ward: his stethoscope and his iPad. Early adopting physicians have been embracing the iPad since day one and now the trial stage has moved to a rush. Not only can a doctor scroll his or her list of patients to be visited, but they can also share information with patients. Dr. Henry Feldman, a surgeon at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told Coombs that when it comes to treating surgical patients, being able to pull up diagrams and x-rays at their bedside has been a real game changer. Feldman said that he has been told more than once “That’s the first time I’ve understood my disease”.

Does this mean that Apple will dominate healthcare tablet computing like they do music? What about the Blackberry and Android and the many other tablet entries? The market is certainly large enough for a lot of players but Apple has some distinct and relevant advantages including ease of use and a vetting by Apple before apps are made available. CNBC reported that in February, four out of five doctors surveyed by health marketing company Aptilon said they planned to buy an iPad this year. The major push by healthcare information technology currently is on the electronic medical record. This is in part because the federal government has declared this to be “meaningful use” of IT and has put billions of dollars of incentives in place to accelerate adoption.

I see a major shift ahead similar to what happened 30 years ago when enterprises were focused on solidifying their mainframe computer applications but department chiefs wanted their own solutions and they opted for local area networks of PCs. It took chief information officers a couple of decades to regain control of IT.

Dr. John Halamka, chief information officer at B.I. Deaconess, summed it up for CNBC. “I would call this a perfect storm for medicine,” he said . “You have alignment of funding; a cultural change where doctors want to use devices to improve quality; you also have new devices and new software that is much easier to use.” One of the big unknowns is how federal regulators will respond to the grass-roots demand. There are many questions to be answered. If a doctor takes a picture of a patient with the iPad, does that make the iPad a medical diagnostic device? A similar set of questions were raised in the field of aviation but the demand from pilots was so strong that the FAA found a way to certify the iPad for paperless flight charts. The FDA has already cleared a handful of apps for the iPhone and iPad including a remote patient cardiology monitoring system and a radiology app for reading of medical images.

It is common knowledge that errors are made in healthcare and patients can be harmed. A major contributing factor is imperfect information communication. Can a handheld device such as the iPad improve communications. There is no doubt about it when it comes to patient interaction. The missing link is connecting the iPad to the “backend”. For music the backend is iTunes. For healthcare the backend will be the health information exchanges that are springing up around the country. When that linkage is made, the iPad will become the window into our health and be a tool for improved outcomes. The sooner the better.