Medical profession leads in PDA use

Don’t be surprised if in the not-so-distant future, doctors are not only identified by their stethoscopes and their white coats, but also by their PDAs.

While many industries are embracing handheld technology, the medical profession is leading the pack, according to Matthew Hickey, director of enterprise sales at Palm Canada in Toronto.

“Medical professionals are our largest users,” Hickey said. “Education is very close behind healthcare, and general business professionals are third, including banks, the government and real estate.”

Hickey cited three areas in which medical professionals most use their PDAs: reference material, updating patient files and scheduling and billing.

According to Dr. Jay Mercer, a general practitioner in Penetanguishene and Midland, Ont., handheld technology has changed the way that he practices medicine, particularly because of the instant accessibility to medical texts, which can be imperative in life or death situations.

“I’m in the real world delivering real care to real patients,” Mercer said. “As a GP, my basic knowledge is very good, but when you hit the wall you really hit the wall, and the problem isn’t going to be solved by a pocket book. As a medical student I carried around a lot of books. My briefcase is a lot lighter now, but I carry more books than when I was a student – with my 64MB card I can quite literally carry 100 lbs. worth of books with me.”

Mercer cites the portability of the PDA as a primary advantage.

“It’s fast and can give you a lot of data at the point of care,” he explained. “I’m a rural GP, and on house calls if folks need an answer that I can’t give them, I don’t have time to go to a computer and look something up on the Web. If someone is on a certain anti-depressant and their hair is falling out, it would take two million patient years of experience to know if those two things are related. Now with my Palm, I can look it up fast and find out if hair loss is a side effect of the drug within minutes.”

Dr. Leanna McKenzie, a paediatric gastroenterology fellow at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, uses her Palm handheld device for instant access to an entire drug database – – as well as to other information that assists her in patient care.

“Being in paediatrics, I have to use a calculator on a daily basis for dosages,” she said, explaining that the all-in-one device allows her to carry less with her throughout her daily rounds. “My Palm also contains formulas I often use, growth charts for kids and lists of medical tips for different problems that I’ve jotted down from lecture series or have downloaded from the Internet.”

The appearance of PDAs in the hospital environment has become a common sight, McKenzie said.

“They’re becoming more and more popular, especially with tech-savvy med students coming onto wards,” she explained. “There are a lot of lectures and information sessions available on using PDAs in medicine. It’s definitely a trend.”

A recent physician resource questionnaire conducted by the Canadian Medical Association, showed that more than 25 per cent of physicians under the age of 35 have used a PDA in clinical practice, although Mercer asserts that the numbers are likely much higher than that.

“I think that number’s an underestimation – I think it’s closer to 50 or 60 per cent,” he said, and added that a number of physicians over 35 are also adopting handheld technology. “A lot of doctors around me are using Palms, even guys and gals in the bifocal and trifocal set. Part of the reason is that the barrier to entry is so low and the interface is so good. The screen technology has improved so much that everyone can now read the darn things.”

Steve Ellis, a pharmacy student at the University of Toronto, agrees that the use of PDAs is a trend in medicine, but that it doesn’t stop at medical school. The College of Pharmacy offers at least one class that provides Palm Pilots to its students to use for drug references.

“In our professional practice lab, we’re given scenarios and have to figure out possible problems with the case,” Ellis said. “We use our Palms to save time in figuring out specifics like what drugs are used for, how they interact with each other and facts pertinent to providing patient care.”

According to Mercer, his increased use of his PDA has become a source of interest for his patients.

“When I first started carrying my Palm, I was a little bit sheepish with my patients about it, so I had this funny introduction about using it,” Mercer remembered. “After a while, when patients came in they’d start saying ‘You’re going to need your computer to figure out what’s wrong with me today, doctor.'”