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Apple Rx Get me an iPhone, STAT!

11/3/2009 by Michelle Delio, Mac Life

In the not-too-distant future, a doctor’s most valuable tool for saving lives and treating medical problems could be an Apple smartphone.

Someday an iPhone may save your life.

It could prevent you from taking (or receiving) the wrong medication, it may monitor your vital signs and automatically call 911 if a problem develops, and it may warn you if substances that can make you sick or kill you are present. Applications that will make possible these and other uses for the iPhone are currently under development at universities and private companies. Meanwhile, the iPhone is becoming the handheld device of choice for doctors who want fast access to diagnostic images and medical reference materials. 

"The iPhone has the potential of being the next truly personal computing platform,” says Tim Bajarin, president of marketing intelligence firm Creative Strategies. “With OS X and the new applications developer kit, you have the makings of a device that could change the face of portable computing.” Bajarin, who believes that the iPhone 3G will quickly emerge as the dominant handheld mobile device in the health care field, points to developers such as ePocrates (, which makes drug-interaction databases available on mobile devices, including the iPhone, as a good example of the iPhone’s potential.

Medical professionals have been using mobile devices in clinical settings for years, but the limitations of these devices and their operating systems haven’t allowed software programmers and health care providers to fully explore the potential of smartphones, says S. Mark Williams, PhD, CEO of Modality Learning, a company that makes printed educational and reference materials available digitally on iPhones and iPods. 

 “The iPhone is the perfect platform for advancing mobile learning and developing education and reference guides for anytime, anywhere use,” says Williams. “Beyond the simple fact that you can easily carry this great content around in your pocket, you can also use the iPhone to extend learning in ways that are impossible in print format. Some of our products have added audio or video, quiz features, search functionality, links to Web content, interactive maps, and more. It feels like we’re discovering and developing new features on an almost daily basis.”

Williams and his team aren’t the only ones discovering that the iPhone development tools allow them to code applications that are far more sophisticated than they initially expected would be possible for a smartphone.

“When the iPhone software development kit was released, somebody here suggested that we should see what we could do with it, thinking maybe we’d be able to build something that could display a few medical images on the iPhone,” says David Watson, director of software development for MIMvista, developers of the MIM iPhone Application, which lets health care professionals and patients view medical diagnostic imagery on the iPhone, something that used to be possible only on high-powered computer workstations.

MIMvista’s MIM iPhone Application makes it possible for medical pros and their patients to review diagnostic imaging scans like these on an iPhone—no film or high-end computer workstation required.

“One thing we’ve already had a number of doctors ask for is some way of using the iPhone for presentations. If Apple would make available whichever device they plug into the dock connector for their own presentations, it could potentially remove the need to have a laptop for presentations,” says Watson, who says he hopes that Apple will also boost the RAM in iPhones and provide faster flash memory access soon because “the applications that could be produced then would be simply amazing.”

In fact, Watson says he’d love to see Apple develop “a tablet-type device, running OS X iPhone with significantly more processing power.”

Though they’re Mac users at home, MIM iPhone was the MIMvista programming team’s first experience developing software specifically for an Apple platform. The team is now happily working on porting MIMvista’s desktop applications to OS X. Watson and his team are also excited about the new developer features announced for OS X Snow Leopard, primarily, he says, because OpenCL, which will allow graphics processors to handle some of the demanding computing tasks that are normally handed off to CPUs, looks especially compelling.

Med students needn’t break their backs lugging the bound paper version of Netter’s Atlas of Anatomy between classes. Modality makes Netter’s content accessible via iPhone.

 “Modern graphics processors are extremely powerful, but writing programs to take advantage of them are currently very difficult and time-consuming,” Watson says. “We’re looking forward to being able to easily take advantage of some of these features, which we’ll be able to use to help physicians enhance the speed and quality of the patient care they can provide.”

Watson and Williams both expect that as the iPhone hardware evolves, the iPhone will help streamline medical diagnosis and treatment processes.  “The potential is limitless,” says Williams, adding, “We’re all excited to see what Apple will enable us to do next.”