Small and midsize practices planning tablet computer buying spree

With tablet use, physicians are forcing hospitals to change the way they think about health IT, instead of the other way around.

By — Posted Jan. 16, 2012

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At least one survey indicates that physicians' personal embrace of tablet computers is translating into a professional embrace -- one that could put small offices at the forefront in the latest wave of health information technology.

A survey by the market research firm NPD Group found that 76% of small to medium-sized physician and dental practices said they plan to buy tablets in the next 12 months and spend an average of $6,800. The findings were part of a survey of 500 businesses with fewer than 1,000 employees across all industry sectors.

Some experts predict that tablets will become a central component of physician practices' technology infrastructure and will be used by everyone in the office.

Kenneth Hertz, principal with MGMA Health Care Consulting Group, said tablets carry benefits that laptops and desktops do not. Practice managers of organizations with multiple sites can carry tablets easily and not worry about having desktops at each location. Even though laptops allowed office personnel mobility, the short battery life limited the time they could be in use. Some were too heavy and awkward to use with a patient in an exam room, Hertz said.

"There are a lot of reasons that [the tablet] is of interest to doctors as a tool for them to use," he said.

The interest has not gone unnoticed by health information technology vendors.

A search for "EMR" on Apple's online App Store, for example, produces dozens of EMR products. In addition, there are dozens of other clinical applications, including coding, billing and prescribing (The American Medical Association is among the organizations offering physician- and health-related apps).

Many experts say the tablet has caused physicians to view health IT adoption as something they want to do, as opposed to something they are being forced to do. That's a switch from how innovation normally occurs in health care. Community-based physicians will be driving innovation and forcing hospitals to change the way they think about health IT, instead of the other way around, said Jonathan Mack, PhD, RN, director of clinical research and development at the West Wireless Health Institute, a research organization based in La Jolla, Calif.

Small physician practices "are the early adopters," he said. "The hospitals are not in this case."

Many hospitals have started to respond to physician demand by offering remote access to some of the hospital's internal systems, but it's often on a read-only basis, meaning that no information can be changed. Or, the application doesn't work well on a tablet, Mack said. All issues with interoperability go away when applications move to the Web in a cloud-based system, an EMR that has become more popular with physician practices but not with hospitals, Mack added.

Several surveys in the past year have shown a great interest in tablet devices from the physician community, with current ownership rates ranging from 20% to 30%. For many physicians, tablets were a natural progression in the mobile device trend that began with smartphone use, which surveys put at 75% to 85% of doctors.

A survey of 3,798 physicians in June 2011 by QuantiaMD, an online learning collaborative, found that of the physicians in private practice who weren't using a tablet, 33% said it was extremely likely they would begin using one, and 30% said it was somewhat likely. That survey did not ask respondents what time frame they were considering, but the NPD data show that for many physicians, the investment may come sooner rather than later.

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