When Apple introduced the iPad in January 2010, Steve Jobs called the touch-screen tablet "magical and revolutionary." At least as far as health care is concerned, Jobs' hyperbole may have an inkling of truth.

Health care professionals, particularly physicians, have quickly embraced the iPad: More than 30 percent of U.S. doctors now own one, according to research from both Manhattan Research and Chilmark Research, and sales show no signs of slowing. Manhattan Research said last year that Apple's product "continues to dominate the tablet market in health care," and everyone else is eating its dust.

The reason is that in the iPad, physicians have found a user-friendly product. The tablet doesn't cost 50 percent more than a comparably outfitted laptop, as some of its competitors' offerings have.
And the iPad delivers elegant design, good battery life and ease of use to health care users who have been clamoring for all three since tablets-many developed specifically for the medical market-hit the market a decade ago.

David Carleton, vice president and CIO at Heritage Valley Health System, Beaver, Pa., calls the iPad a "new delivery mechanism" for data and applications.

At Heritage Valley, a homegrown app allows doctors to access a clinical data repository from their tablets. "There's very little that we don't present to them on the iPad," Carleton says.

But it's not time for a victory lap just yet. The iPad and its competitors are not a perfect fit for health care for a variety of reasons, experts say: the small screen size is still a problem, as are the virtual keyboards, which make typing even more laborious for physicians who dislike typing in the first place. There are numerous security concerns with mobile devices and platforms, a big issue in an increasingly security-conscious industry.

In addition, software is still playing a bit of catch-up to the hardware.

Last fall, a small-scale iPad experiment failed at Seattle Children's Hospital. Chief Technology Officer Wes Wright issued iPads to five physicians and two nurses and enabled them to log into the hospital's Cerner EHR through an app that effectively turned the tablet into a Citrix terminal, replicating the desktop environment from each user's PC.

Every one of the users said the set-up was not suitable for their day-to-day inpatient tasks. But Wright does not blame Apple. "We made them use a Windows 7 desktop on top of the iPad," Wright explains. "The point wasn't that the iPad was the problem. It was the software," Wright says.

So while iPads and its tablet brethren are not yet a fit for every current clinical environment and software infrastructure, emerging computing trends are breaking down some barriers. In addition, HIT vendors are starting to develop tablet-specific software and role out new devices to make the form factor more customized to the industry.

A feature story in the April issue of Health Data Management examines issues surrounding the increasing use of tablets in health care.

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