New technologies, both mobile and Internet-based, hold potential medical applications that may advance care. Through cellular telephones, netbooks, and laptops, physicians and healthcare providers are now able to utilize these technological improvements at the point of care. Non-profit organizations, research teams at universities, and other groups are working to develop applications for use on cell phones, often with integrated web-based features, to ensure that medical knowledge is fully accessible worldwide.
Web-based iConsult, the flagship program of the iCons in Medicine initiative, allows for collaboration between healthcare providers worldwide through a teleconsultation software and social networking website. The iConsult application, which functions like email, is easy-to-use, reliable, and designed for use in areas with limited or intermittent connectivity. The system facilitates knowledge transfer worldwide by pairing Volunteers, medical specialists who lend their expertise, with Requestors, medical professionals who work for non-profits in remote or medically underserved areas. Through the software and website, Volunteers and Requestors may collaborate on difficult medical cases from a distance, providing specialty advice that otherwise might not be available. Volunteers in the iCon Network who elect to take part in iConsult agree to provide at least three teleconsults per year. The iConsult software allows Requestors to upload a case consultation form, including digital images, and discuss potential diagnoses and treatments on a one-to-one basis with Volunteers in a secure environment. Other organizations, like InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies Diseases and Disasters), develop free and open source technologies to enable seamless and reliable collaboration between individuals working in the developing world and areas affected by conflict situations or natural disasters. GeoChat is a mobile communications service designed to allow for group communications via cellular telephones and online. The technology can be used in humanitarian crises to ensure that individuals who may be trapped, injured, sick, or in need of assistance can be reached quickly and their needs addressed. Unlike platforms that are only web-based, InSTEDD’s GeoChat allows healthcare providers and others to form a team and use SMS messaging, email, and/or a web browser to share information based on their location, providing an accurate documentation of conditions in a given region.
In addition to web-based initiatives, many organizations have begun developing and distributing applications for smartphones, creating a new base of information for both physicians and the general public. An analysis published by Manhattan Research in February 2009 indicates that more than 10 million adults in the United States use mobile devices to access health information. This figure may include individuals who chose to purchase the Merck Manual Home Health Handbook (3rd Edition) in its iPhone application format. Users can reference a range of health topics on-the-go with this and other similar applications. The Merck Manual is available in both a home and professional edition, and features a search engine and the ability to bookmark and email subjects. Other organizations, such as health insurance company Medica, are making efforts to increase the public’s awareness about healthcare and its costs through iPhone applications like Main Street Medica. The application, which is available to all consumers, not only Medica members, offers users the chance to compare the cost of common procedures at hundreds of clinics and facilities.
Though some look for health information on their own, a recent Opinion Research Corporation survey found that 64 percent of consumers turn to their physicians for health advice and feel that they are their most trusted source of health information. In an effort to ensure that healthcare providers have up-to-date information, organizations like Emerging Solutions in Pain (ESP) have also begun releasing mobile applications intended for use by medical professionals. ESP has launched an application for healthcare professionals involved in pain management or addiction medicine called ESP Mobile, which provides multimedia information in a mobile format and also includes up-to-date information and educational programs in pain management, news articles, and clinical support resources for providers. Physicians at Houston-based Memorial Herman Healthcare System use this and a number of other iPhone applications, including Airstrip OB, which displays medical notes and real time vital statistics of women as they approach delivery. The thousands of doctors and nurses within the 11 hospitals that comprise the System also utilize apps in the emergency room to quickly identify medications – particularly useful “if an unconscious patient comes in with a pocketful of pills.”
Other applications may be of use to both physicians and patients including language translation applications and a number of websites and mobile applications developed to provide up to the minute disease outbreak tracking and evaluation. Primarily focused on the medical community, applications like the Arabic Language Buddy, which provides real time, two-way English-Arabic translation; and Jibbigo, which converts English to Spanish and vice versa, offer potential tools for doctors working in regions where they are not fluent in the native language. Websites developed by the United States government and a joint effort from Microsoft Corp. and Emory University are more focused on providing patients with information, and may help individuals determine if their symptoms indicate possible H1N1 virus infection and warrant a doctor visit. Outbreaks Near Me, a mobile application for the iPhone developed by researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Boston, provides real time tracking of the spread of H1N1 infection. IntuApps application Swine Flu Tracker provides similar information as well as maps and “threat level” indicators.
Both mobile applications and web-based tools provide a chance to share information and knowledge across borders and ensure that quality medical care is delivered worldwide. New innovations continue to flood the marketplace, and it remains to be seen what the next improvement in healthcare technology will bring.