By THOMAS GOETZ
In case you’ve been preserved in amber the past month, there’s been lots of excitement in technology circles about the iPad – as well as other tablet computers – and how they’ll transform (take your pick): games and word processing and movies and magazines and newspapers and music composition.
But there hasn’t been a great deal said about their possible usefulness in healthcare.
In truth, healthcare has a horrible record with technology. Medical technology, after all, is one of the principle reasons that annual healthcare costs in the U.S. are at $2.5 trillion, and climbing. The CT scan may beguile radiologists and diagnosticians, but it’s also a horribly inefficient technology (it doesn’t scale, there’s no price transparency, etc.). In short, everything that technology is good for in the rest of the universe – lowering costs, reducing expertise – it has exactly the opposite effect in healthcare and medicine.
There have been attempts here or there to introduce consumer-style tools to medicine. Dozens of companies, for instance, offered versions of the Palm Pilot that promised to recognize a physician’s unique needs. But too often these one-off gadgets fell into the wrong quadrant of the efficiency and expense matrix. And the fact that pagers are long dead in every corner of the world except in hospitals serves as yet more proof that healthcare is a bizarro world when it comes to technology.
And consumer-facing tools have fared just as poorly. Fancy set-top boxes that promise to connect patients to their doctors via telemedicine, and cumbersome monitoring devices for people with diabetes or other chronic conditions haven’t exactly inspired confidence.
So: enter the iPad. Does it have a chance?
Yes, and for two reasons. The first is this: In the past healthcare technology has always been about the hardware – building a box that promises to do something, and then trying to educate patients or providers on how to use the box. That hasn’t worked because of bad interface design; the mission was complexity, not simplicity. But the tablets, and the iPad in particular, are designed to be as simple as possible (just one button). They’re not really about the hardware, at all – in fact, if these tools work as promised, the hardware disappears. The device will let users engage with information immediately, without having to negotiate a cumbersome interface. Indeed, the device itself vanishes and the user connects directly with the experience. That’s a powerful shift, and it has great potential for health.
Because the iPad has a multi-touch screen, it becomes an immersive experience, where gestures replace keyboard clicks. The significance of this shift can’t be overstated, and the iPhone has given us a taste (though not the sweep) of what that means. Gestures become visceral, and there’s far less “friction” to the process. For patients and providers alike, this is a huge leap. The learning curve for new devices will pretty much vanish with an iPad, and all sorts of information – scans, charts, home monitoring data – can be engaged with directly.
And that takes me to the second reason the iPad could be transformative: the software. The iPad and other tablet software will have to be simple and intuitive, by design. A keyboard device lets software coders get messy; they can rely on F-keys and keyboard shortcuts to channel readers. But with a touch-centric device, the software will have to work like our brains work – through a series of intuitive motions.
The iPhone app store has done a terrific job introducing a new aesthetic to software, one that’s fluid and fun (albeit walled-off). The iPad and its ilk should only enhance this aesthetic.
So it’s got good hardware and good software. But what’s that have to with healthcare? Well, it seems to me that the iPad – with it’s seamless hardware and intuitive software – will be a terrific way to engage individuals in health information that’s relevant, timely, and meaningful. If the Web excels at delivering general information in massive doses, my hunch is that the tablet will improve the process – in a sort of Information 2.0 way – and the software will tailor and personalize information so that patients can go on fact-finding missions and find relevant facts. IPhone apps like Lose It! and BabyBump are already laying the groundwork for this approach by letting people calibrate their health decisions to their specific circumstances. The iPad et al should be able to do the same, but with a larger more captivating and immersive presence.
I’ll go farther: when the iPad includes a camera – as it inevitably will, down the line – it suddenly will make telemedicine possible. It’ll also make it easier for individuals to track their health records, including images, because we’ll have an easy way to view an interact with our information.
And simplicity is recursive here, so that a simple interface will allow populations that may’ve been intimidated by a computer/keyboard to engage with information technology. Meaning older populations, meaning people with chronic conditions, meaning the population consuming the majority of our healthcare spending. If the iPad can engage these people on better treatment and behaviors, the savings – in terms of dollars and lives – could be radical.
Yes, this is a slightly optimistic forecast – and it’s worth noting that I, like everyone else, hasn’t actually laid hands on a device yet. But the first signs are encouraging. In the tablet computer, instead of a device made by healthcare, we may have a device that works for healthcare. And that distinction could be a world of difference.
Also by this author on THCB – “Why Calculators Are the Future of Healthcare”
Thomas Goetz is the author of The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Age of Personalized Medicine. The executive editor at Wired Magazine, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/tgoetz.