iPads have won the hospital, but Android may win the patients

In wards and doctor's offices, the iPad is becoming a mainstay care device, as Android stakes a spot in patient-facing use

At the gigantic Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference these week in New Orleans, iPads were everywhere. At least half the attendees had one for note-taking, whereas laptops (almost all of which ran Windows) were a distinct minority. iPhones and Androids were also ubiquitous, with a scattering of BlackBerrys.

The 30,000 practitioners, consultants, health care IT staff, and vendors who flock to this show clearly are modern mobile users. But at work, they put those devices away and turn to traditional PCs and even green-screen terminals to access patient records, order procedures, handle scheduling, and manage email.

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Not for long -- for a while now, health care has wanted to use tablets in patient wards, waiting rooms, mobile clinics, and the like, but the Windows XP, Vista, and 7 systems available in the last decade were too heavy, hard to use, and power-hungry. Plus, electronic health records (EHR) systems have only recently come online, so there wasn't much actionable digital information. With EHRs in wide deployment as hospitals race to meet federal implementaion deadlines and iPads prove to be durable, battery-sipping, and powerful devices, the attention is now on marrying EHRs and iPads.

For clinicians, it's becoming an iPad world

The two largest EHR vendors -- Epic and Cerner -- already have slick iPad apps that handle much of the workflow in in-patient and ambulatory (outpatient) settings, able to handle most tasks a doctor or nurse needs to do when with a patient. Clinicians (doctors, nurses, and so on) I spoke with at HIMSS want to work in iPads rather than computers for the same reason all workers prefer light, portable, connected devices over laptops and other PCs. The iPad Mini, which fits easily into a lab coat yet has a screen 85 percent the size of a standard iPad, is particularly attractive to clinicians; those who had them loved them, and those who don't want one. iPhone versions are also typically available, but iPad versions seem to be displacing them.

Pretty much every EHR vendor is working on iPad apps, even though most are a year or two behind Epic and Cerner. For example, major EHR vendor Siemens Health could show only a limited-capability iPad beta, with promises it would catch up in a year or so.

They see in the market what I saw at HIMSS: mobile-oriented sessions so packed with practitioners that rooms had to be closed to some attendees because there were more participants wanting in than fire regulations would allow. No question that mobile is top of mind for health care, and for caregivers, mobile means iPad.

The iPad is a natural for clinicians. In addition to its weight, size, and battery-life advantages, its simple touch-based interface works well in the medical environment used to checklists, forms, and patient records containing a mix of media, from handwritten notes to X-rays. The ability to use voice recognition input from providers such as Nuance helps, though the lack of stylus support in iOS caused an occasional grumble. The iPad is also easy to keep sterile.

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