Are smartphones a viable platform for pharmacy practice?

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of tablet PCs. In fact, I can’t imagine life without one. The reason why acute care pharmacists haven’t adopted the tablet PC platform escapes me. My complete opinion on the matter can be found here.

With the growing need for real-time access to patient data it no longer makes sense to be anchored to a desktop PC at the point-of-care. Couple this with the rapid growth of portable technology and you have a rare opportunity to develop a mobile pharmacy practice in the acute care setting. Whether that model will utilize tablet PCs, UMPCs, WebStations, netbooks or other mobile device remains to be seen.

The rapid growth and popularity of small, portable devices such as PDAs, smartphones, netbooks and to a lesser degree tablet PCs is evident by the volume of information in the medical literature investigating their use, not to mention the sheer number of smartphones one can pick out of a crowd by just taking the time to look. This popularity has led to significant advances in mobile computing as well as acceptance into mainstream healthcare practice.

With that said, users have shown preference to desktop PCs when given the choice.1 That may be changing however, as advanced devices such as the iPhone, Palm Pre and Motorola Droid gain acceptance and developers create better mobile resources. Regardless of the advances made over the past several years, there remains a gap between the use of mobile devices like smartphones and pharmacy practice. There is anecdotal evidence that this gap is closing, albeit slowly, but literature to support the use of smartphones in healthcare, pharmacy in particular, is lacking. I still believe the tablet PC, or similar device will be the ultimate answer to our need for mobility, but the introduction of the iPhone OS, WinMo 6.5, Palm’s WebOS, and the Android OS have created new opportunities for the use of ultra-mobile devices for pharmacy practice. These practice models require serious consideration and investigation.

The advantages of using a smartphone are clear. They are utterly mobile, have the same functionality as preciously available handheld computers, i.e. PDAs, have full time internet access and most importantly are always with you.

Access to the internet via smartphones has made handheld devices without wireless connectivity obsolete and given healthcare professionals greater flexibility than ever before. Pharmacists now have real-time access to complex patient data, scans, labs, medication profiles, and so on. Not only can users access and view information, but they can make changes to the information in real-time. As this trend continues, desktop devices will either begin to fade from use or undergo significant changes to meet the needs of the mobile pharmacist

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 65 percent of individuals over the age of 15 accessed the Internet in 2007, up from 56.9 percent in 2005. Development of platforms likes Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are driving the need for 24/7 internet access. And it is that drive from the consumer side that has ultimately led to advances in mobile technology.  Once again the consumer market is nudging healthcare forward.

Of course, there remain several disadvantages to using smartphones of which I have become painfully aware since purchasing my Droid several weeks ago. While the device gives me unprecedented access to information it is not without drawbacks. Having anywhere, anytime access doesn’t really mean anytime, anywhere access. I’ve found a few holes in the Verizon coverage. I can still make calls and send text messages, but my internet access becomes unavailable in areas without access to the 3G network. Problems with coverage area are not unique to Verizon; all carriers suffer from this problem. The other issues are less benign, but worth consideration: speed, i.e. slower than a desktop, laptop, or tablet PC; lack of screen real estate for viewing complex data screens; and battery life.

Even with the disadvantages mentioned above, advances in drug information from companies like Lexi-Comp, web based clinical software services from companies like Pharmacy OneSource and remote access software like that from Citrix are making it easier to move toward a small, portable pharmacy platform such as smartphones.

There is no question that smartphones are making their way into healthcare, but not necessarily into the pharmacy. Physicians appear to be the front-runners in adopting smartphone technology in their practice model with nursing and pharmacy coming in a distant second. Unfortunately this is a common theme with new technology. Perhaps it has something to do with the outdated practice model currently in use by most acute care pharmacies; who knows. One thing is for certain, clinicians should take notice and make use of this technology as it can only help to expand their practice.

Will smartphones become a viable platform for pharmacy practice in the acute care setting? Only time will tell, but I’m not willing to bet the farm on it. By the time pharmacy decides to give smartphone technology serious consideration, the technology will be long past its prime. It’s just a thought.

Cross-posted at RxInformatics.com

1. Chang P, Tzeng Y, Wu S-, Sang Y, Chen S. Development and Comparison of User Acceptance of Advanced Comprehensive Triage PDA Support System with a Traditional Terminal Alternative System. AMIA Annu Symp Proc. . 2003;2003:140–144.

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