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Goodbye pager. Hello smartphone.

Pagers have been a part of the quintessential physician uniform, along with a white lab coat and a stethoscope, for decades. But today, physicians who still use a pager may be in a minority among their colleagues in the United States.

Most physicians are trading in their pagers for smartphones. According to a recent Manhattan Research study, 72 percent of U.S. physicians use smartphones, and the research firm predicts that 81 percent of physicians will use a smartphone by 2012.1

The appeal of smartphones is obvious: instead of juggling a pager, cell phone, computer, and desk reference, a physician can use a single smartphone to make calls, send and receive e-mail and text messages, monitor a patient’s heart rate or glucose levels, view x-rays and MRI scans, look up drug interactions, share electronic health records, and even stream music from the Internet during surgery.

“Physicians have always been advanced in terms of their mobile use,” said Monique Levy, Senior Director of Research at Manhattan Research, in a company release. “Nevertheless, growth in smartphone ownership in the last year is remarkable. Mobile is delivering on its promise to allow doctors to be ‘always on’ — which is partly why so many doctors say the Internet is essential to their practice.”

Dr. Ron Hellstern, an emergency-medicine physician who lives in Dallas, uses his iPhone 3GS extensively. While no longer in clinical practice, Dr. Hellstern uses his iPhone for his medical-practice management consulting business. “With clients all over the United States, including two in Alaska, I travel quite a bit, so I use apps like Safari, TripCase, Flight Map, Maps, and GPS Drive in my travels,” Dr. Hellstern says. “And, of course, being able to check and respond to e-mail on the road is essential.”

Smartphones in medical school

Younger physicians don’t have to be convinced that smartphones are a critical part of their profession. In fact, 30 percent of medical schools now require students to have a smartphone.2 So young physicians leave medical school having already incorporated smartphones into their everyday professional life.

The School of Medicine at Georgetown University recently started requiring students to have a smartphone after their first year. Students use the devices to look up information during clinical rotations, study medical vocabulary, and take quizzes.3

Other medical schools that require smartphones include:

  • University of Massachusetts Medical School
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of Virginia
  • University of North Carolina
  • Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University

Currently, the only medical school in Texas that requires its students to have a smartphone is the University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC). Jack Bullion, Instruction Librarian at UNTHSC who teaches a class titled “Medical Informatics” for all first-year medical students, believes smartphones are the future of medicine. “They alleviate the burdens on students and physicians,” he says. “Instead of having to carry around several references, everything is housed in one device. It’s like carrying around an entire medical library.”

Bullion teaches the students the basics of using a smartphone, covers the most-used medical apps, and instructs them on how to use critical thinking to look up targeted information. “Students may not realize at first how important their smartphone is, but when they start their rotations, it becomes a lifeline.”

Privacy and other concerns

While it seems to be an essential tool for physicians, the smartphone does present a few downsides. Security and privacy issues seem to be the biggest worry. Deborah Peel, founder of Patient Privacy Rights, says, “The problems are common to all mobile devices: encryption at rest on the device and in transit, and whether data on lost or stolen devices can be easily accessed.”4

Letting the mobile device get in between the physician and his or her patients is another concern. If physicians spend too much of an office visit looking down at a screen for formulas or research, the doctor-patient relationship may be compromised.

Some physicians may be wary of giving up their pager just yet because of spotty cellular coverage in hospital settings. In addition, pagers tend to be more reliable and cheaper to use than smartphones.

BlackBerry or iPhone?

Currently, BlackBerry and Apple are nearly neck and neck in terms of physician smartphone adoption, but BlackBerry is still the top smartphone brand among physicians.1

However, Apple seems to be attempting to get more medical professionals to use their platforms and software. Apple has started conducting workshops for medical professionals on how the iPhone and iPad can be useful in their medical practices. Apple even has a web page dedicated to showing how their various devices can be used in health care.

Jack Bullion from UNTHSC estimates 90% of his students use an iPhone. And he also believes Apple’s iPad has some exciting medical possibilities as well. “The iPad still fits in a physician’s white coat pocket, and it can store way more information than an iPhone,” he says.

Whichever device wins out, one thing is for sure: smartphones — and other mobile devices like iPads — are here to stay, and they’re changing how physicians practice medicine in exciting and innovative ways.

1. 72 percent of physicians use smartphones, by Brian Dolan, May 5, 2010,

2. Trends in Mobile Medicine: Smartphone Apps for Physicians, FirstWord Dossier,

3. New Tool in the MD’s Bag: A Smartphone, by Sindya N. Bhanoo, May 19, 2010,

4. Smartphones increase trust among doctors; privacy concerns for patients, by Brian Dolan, November 3, 2009,

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