You have a rash or a small wound, and you want to know whether it’s anything to worry about. No need to make a doctor appointment. Your smartphone will see you now.
An app created by South Florida cardiologist Ariel Soffer allows you to use your smartphone to take a photo and send it to your physician to determine whether you need medical attention.
And Soffer’s innovation isn’t the only doctor-created app changing physicians’ interaction with patients and one another. In the rush to fill a void in an otherwise tech-savvy medical field, a number of doctors are inventing apps that enable them to tap into smartphone technology without violating strict patient-privacy laws.
“Without a doubt, just about all doctors are using smartphones so the demand for using these devices is much greater and deeper for doctors,” said Brian Dolan, editor of MobiHealthNews.com, which tracks advances in mobile health and medical technology. “That’s why there’s all these new solutions for them to have a text-message-like experience and do it in a secure way.”
Though everyday Americans can choose from more than 40,000 health apps — to do everything from measure their glucose to remind them to take their medicine — the gee-whiz technology has been slow to reach one essential component of medicine: doctor-patient communication.
Nine out of 10 doctors carry a smartphone, but unless they access encrypted apps that protect the security of patient information, they can’t use the devices to communicate to or about patients without violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA.
The first smartphone apps that helped doctors send encryption-protected texts came out in 2009, Dolan said, but the advent of the iPad and other tablets has commanded much of the attention of mobile app designers since. So doctors are taking the initiative, and attracting a broad audience.
Free for patients to download and available to doctors for $19.99 a month, Soffer’s Heart and Vein app has been downloaded by thousands since its March launch.
Among them is Plantation family physician Rundeep Gadh, who recently used the app to diagnose a patient’s rash on a weekend, then called in a prescription.
“Her other option would have been to go to urgent care or the ER. Most people won’t go, and it could have gotten worse,” Gadh said. “It’s really an amazing thing we have now in medicine.”
The doctor-entrepreneurs devising such apps are finding Florida to be an eager market.
“We have more physician customers in Florida and California than any other state,” said Dr. Michael Nusbaum, a New Jersey bariatric surgeon who launched the MedXCom app in February to protect both doctors and patients from misinformation that can arise from cellphone conversations, the most common mode of communication for a busy doctor.
The MedXCom app records every cellphone call between doctor and patient. When it comes to lengthy or complex medical instructions, the patient can benefit from a recording or a transcript of the call, both of which are provided by the app, Nusbaum said. And for a doctor having to protect himself in a litigious climate, the audio and printed record is proof that certain instructions were made.
“It’s kind of crazy that doctors and patients communicate so often after hours. It’s kind of this black hole,” Nusbaum said. “No one knows what’s being said, and no one is being held accountable.”
When a patient makes or receives a call from a doctor using the MedXCom app, a recording is first played, saying, “This call may be recorded for quality purposes.” By following through with the call, the patient consents to having it taped, which is necessary in many states with laws against secret recordings.
The patient, who pays nothing for the service, is offered immediate access to the recorded call and can opt for a transcript, which can take up to a day to process. The app lets doctors prescribe medications and costs $29.95 to $79.95 a month, depending on how many physicians make up their practice. (A bare-bones version with secure text-messaging is available for free.)
Hallandale Beach emergency physician Dr. Cornell Calinescu said the app has proven to be “an absolute godsend, one of the best things I’ve ever used.
”I have 8,000 patients, and my phone never stops ringing. It’s absolutely revolutionary. I tell all my doctor friends about it, and every time I do, their jaw drops.“
Then there’s DocBookMD, devised by a married doctor couple in Texas, which allows doctors to share X-rays, lab reports and other critical medical information about their patients, as well as providing quick access to a list of specialists and their contact information.
”It’s pretty slick,” said West Palm Beach surgeon Dr. Daniel Higgins, who so far only uses DocBookMD for its specialist list but sees lots of potential in the image-sharing feature. ”I can see how that can be helpful. It’s very simple to use.“
While these apps differ in what they offer, they all have one critical asset in common: They use secure, encrypted technology that allows doctors to communicate with patients, and each other, without fear of sensitive, private patient information leaking out or getting hacked.
After using the Soffer app for a couple of months, Gadh said he can’t wait to see what new innovations are in store for the medical community.
“I’m excited for the future of things,” he said. “This is just the beginning, I’m sure.’’