The Handheld Will See You Now

Doctors are putting Palm technology to work in all phases of health care from drug and diagnostic info to billing

By Jeff Green

Got a headache? Your doctor's advice might be "Take two aspirin and beam my Palm in the morning." Physicians and other medical personnel are among those who are finding a broad range of job-related uses for handheld computers like Palms and Handspring Visors.

Take Visor owners David and Jennifer Ely. Jennifer is a second-year resident in internal medicine at Genesys Regional Medical Center near Flint, Mich. Her husband, David, is an emergency medical technician for two local ambulance services and is training to be a paramedic.

Both rely on their Visors -- handheld computers licensed to use the Palm operating system -- to keep track of medical information. Jennifer uses what she calls her "peripheral brain" to keep track of medical references, maintain a schedule, and as a repository for everything from appropriate "drip rates" for intravenous drugs to dosage information. She's also storing medical notes for future reference. Nearly all her co-workers are similarly Palm-enabled.


  David has a drug reference installed in his Visor that updates through the Internet every time he synchronizes his handheld with the computer. The paper versions at the ambulance dispatch office are updated only once a year. He also tracks the number of runs he has been on and what procedures he has performed. "I'm able to store about 10 pounds of reference material in my pocket," he says. The handhelds are especially popular among doctors, but David reports they are becoming more so among EMTs and paramedics.

These trend isn't lost on the Palm community. Palm Inc.'s venture-capital arm, Palm Ventures, was among the new investors last month in ePhysician, a Mountain-View (Calif.) health-technology company that provides wireless medical products to 8,000 doctors. The company has programs that allow doctors to send prescriptions wirelessly over the Internet, diagnose patients, and track billing -- all while on rounds. It's just one of the dozens of companies and services melding the medical with the microprocessor.

Even drug interactions are now just a Palm-tap away. With ePocrates' qRX program, a doctor can find out if any interactions are likely between two drugs by highlighting them. (Other information, such as price, packaging, and dosage, is also available.) Another program, QID, lets you tap in information on symptoms and diseases and get treatment recommedations.


  Dr. Charles Shaefer says he'd rather leave his stethoscope at home than his Palm. Shaefer, who specializes in internal medicine and critical care in Augusta, Ga., says he often double-checks his work on his Palm to make sure his decisions are both accurate and the most cost-effective for the patient. When discussing options with a patient, he often uses the Palm to help explain the trade-offs.

"Twenty years ago, the best doctor was the one who could retain the most information in his head and then recount it accurately," he says. "The new value for a physician is to take the information and use it to treat the patient in the best manner." Programs such as PocketBilling from PocketMed and MD Everywhere enhance bedside reporting with billing, diagnosis, and other medical information.

Handhelds also have made research easier to track. Miami Children's Hospital uses Palm software and technology to keep records on the care of pediatric heart patients. Doctors enter information and access data right from a patient's bedside. Major pharmaceutical companies are using Palms to gather bedside and on-site patient information during drug trials. In some cases, patients send their data from home via Palm modems.


  The trend is even going global. In hotspots like the Balkans and Southeast Asia, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control uses Palms to track and control disease outbreaks and for disaster assessment.

And while patients also can use handhelds to get medical information, health professionals aren't concerned that Palm-enabled info will put them out of business. The Internet already allows patients to do tons of research before they visit the doctor, but they still visit the doctor, notes Laura Kaufman, ePocrates' marketing communications manager. "It's not like you can type in that you have a cough, and it tells you what drug you should take," she says. At least not yet.

Green , Business Week correspondent based in Detroit, is a Palm aficionado. Follow his perspectives on Palm-based technologies, only on BW Online

Edited by Thane Peterson

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