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Health IT professionals don't need an analyst report to know that tablet computing devices are catching on – a morning rush-hour train ride suffices just fine to prove that point.
The likes of Deloitte, Gartner, IDC, Forrester and others, however, have compiled them just in case. Their projections agree: Tablets and smartphones together will outsell PCs, possibly as soon as this year.
Federal, state and local health IT shops may or may not be ready to support the new devices. No matter, those tablet-toting commuters, part of a growing BYO (Bring Your Own) movement, will be carrying their devices along just the same.
But will the mobility-related advantages offered by tablets become a bane to your IT efforts or a boon? That depends on how you handle them.
The IT Attraction
Tablet computing devices have long been attractive to healthcare IT departments as a way to give users easy mobile access to applications that can help them do their jobs more effectively and, ultimately, provide enhanced service to patients.
With the continuing emergence of newer and more versatile devices from vendors including Apple, Motorola, Research in Motion, Samsung and Hewlett-Packard, healthcare institutions and government agencies that address healthcare issues see huge potential for the devices — and a few are planning or already launching rollouts.
Much of the recent popularity of tablets in the workplace has to do with the introduction of Apple's iPad in 2010 and the ongoing "consumerization" of IT, in which workers use devices that are aimed primarily at consumers to perform a variety of business tasks.
Forrester Research reported earlier this year that sales of tablets in the United States in 2010 totaled about 10.3 million units, and the firm expects that number to more than double in 2011 to 24.1 million units.
"Tablets are being adopted in the clinical setting rather rapidly for several reasons, (including) the mobility factor and greater use of EMRs," said Jody Ranck, director of thought leadership at the mHealth Alliance, an organization that advances mobile health through policy research, advocacy and support for the development of technology solutions.
"But there are other features, such as high-resolution screens that make them ideal in the clinic," Ranck added. "Radiologic scans can now be viewed on the (tablet) screen, and the resolution is high enough to satisfy radiologists who require high-resolution screens to detect pathologies."
Ranck noted that there are many new medical applications emerging for tablets, such as three-dimensional human anatomy applications.
Organizations that have deployed tablets are realizing benefits almost immediately.
The Jefferson County Department of Health in Alabama has used PCs in its exam rooms for more than 10 years, and sees tablets and other lightweight devices as potential tools for accessing healthcare information from just about anywhere.
The department did not want to deploy wireless laptops because of their bulk and poor battery life, said Dr. Claude Ouimet, deputy health officer. But when the iPad came out last year, officials bought several of the devices to see how they would work for applications such as accessing electronic health records. The organization conducted several pilot programs with physicians and nurses, and these showed that the devices would be useful tools for healthcare professionals, Ouimet said.
Today, the department is using about 25 tablets in conjunction with its PCs to provide added convenience for healthcare workers, who can easily carry the devices from room to room to access data from multiple locations, Ouimet said.
"Some doctors are using the iPad almost exclusively in the exam rooms" as part of patient visits without relying on the traditional PCs, Ouimet said. "Others are using them just to review information with patients or to order labs or write prescriptions. Some nurses use them to (assist) physicians in the exam room."
One key application the department is running on the tablets is an EHR product from SuccessEHS in Birmingham, Ala. The application helps medical practices create and manage electronic records for all patients, as well as automate workflow in a physician's office.
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