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Saving lives, one iPad at a time

Tablets have jetted to prominence primarily as consumer devices that have crept into business and professional settings through the back door, as consumers bring their latest toys to work. But one of the most effective uses of tablets started in the most professional and sober of settings – a cancer clinic at my alma mater Duke University – before the iPad was ever introduced and with patients who would not fit the profile of a typical tablet user.

Back in 2007, about 20 years after I graduated, doctors at Duke were looking for a more effective way to learn about the progress, symptoms, and overall health and well being of cancer patients. Building off work done by a group of community cancer doctors in Memphis, the Duke clinicians realized that tablets could help gather more complete patient information, facilitate follow up and match educational programs to specific patient concerns.

Now, each time patients visit a Duke Oncology clinic, they answer a series of 88 questions on tablet computers in the waiting room. Between visits, they regularly make similar observations on a secure online site. This online questionnaire is meant to supplement traditional face-to-face doctor-patient consultations.

What Duke has said is that the information generated on the tablets was often more accurate and comprehensive than what doctors glean in the consultation room. Three-quarters of breast-cancer patients reported that they were able to remember their symptoms more accurately, and one-third of them said the online questionnaire prompted them to bring up issues with their doctors.

Patients are also more forthcoming about alcohol use, sex lives, anxiety and depression on the tablets than they are in person. The original patients were not necessarily members of the always-on, multitasking, multiplatform, millennial, social-media set accustomed to an open-door policy about their lives. They ranged in age from 31 to 84, with an average age of 54

Physicians have relied on this new vein of patient data to initiate conversations with patients,  tailor treatments and inform health protocols that lead to improved patient outcomes. When the system alerted physicians to the problem of sexual distress in patients with gastrointestinal or breast cancer, Duke developed targeted educational materials and counseling programs. Tablets have helped improve the lives of doctors, too, by decreasing physicians’ documentation time by 17%.

From its modest start with 10 tablet computers in a single cancer clinic waiting room, the initiative has been expanded to more than 50 clinical practices and to other specialties like gastroenterology and cardiology. In the words of Amy Abernethy, founder and director of the Duke Cancer Care Research Program, “Combining tablet technology with clinical care has been great for our doctors and our patients. Tablets enable doctors to spend more time with patients, and patients to lead fuller lives through the creation of personalized education.”

Tablets are often viewed as “nice to have” media and communications devices. But for this group of patients they have become an essential tool help them lead longer and richer lives. The initiative began under the radar in the medical sector that, outside of diagnostic equipment, is still a digital backwater for patients. Try booking an appointment with your doctor or receiving lab results online. But it goes to show the potential of tablets and other digital devices to make the world a better place.