Interesting new research has shown that in 2014, two-thirds of U.S. doctors own a tablet, smartphone, and a desktop or laptop computer. While it was once thought that tablets would replace smartphones, that has not turned out to be the case. Rather, doctors are using different tech for different purposes. They use desktops or laptops primarily for EHRs, smartphones to check email or look something up on an app, and tablets for journal reading, CME, and video, including patient education videos.

While the general consensus seems to be that overall, technology is improving health care, doctors walk a fine line between tech enhancing communication with their patients and detracting from it. Are screens helping or hurting your practice? The answer may lie in how you’re using them.

Technology versus the personal side of medicine

A couple of years ago, a JAMA article illustrated the cost of technology with a picture by a seven-year-old patient. The colorful crayon drawing showed the girl and her family in the exam room along with the doctor – who sat facing a computer, his back to everyone in the room.  “Stop facing the computer. Look at your patients while you talk to them. Listen for more time than you talk. Body language can say more than words, but you’ll miss it if you aren’t looking, and your patients can’t ask questions if you don’t give them space,” said Dr. Carol Cassella in a Wall Street Journal panel on “How to Improve Doctor-Patient Communication.”

Doctors are in a tough position these days. Many have more demands on their time and more newly insured patients on their schedules – not to mention the laborious requirements of implementing EHRs and qualifying for meaningful use. But savvy doctors understand that certain types of technology and the ways they use it in their practices can not only save them time, but enhance patient engagement and satisfaction as well. The key is balancing the benefits of technology with the personal side of medicine.

Some surprises about how doctors are using mobile

Many fear that the push towards EHRs will even further alienate doctors from their patients. Since EHRs are most often used on desktop and laptop computers—integration with tablets is taking longer than hoped—doctors who use them are apt to spend more time on their computers in the exam room rather than talking to patients. The key to making technology less intrusive may be mobile. However, not all mobile devices are created equal, and not all are being used to bridge the doctor-patient communication gap.

The research on mobile adoption among U.S. doctors has not only revealed that the majority use three screens in their daily activities, but contains some surprises about how those devices are used, as well. Contrary to initial expectations, smartphone screens have remained largely for providers’ eyes only, rather than shared with patients during consultations.

“The smartphone is very physician-facing,” said Manhattan Research’s director of physician research James Avallone. “When smartphones first came out there was some talk about [them] having the potential for being turned and shared with the patient. As of 2014 it’s clear that it’s not happening.”

Sharing information with patients is primarily done on desktops/laptops and tablets. This year, 76 percent of doctors own a tablet, and studies have shown that about half of them use tablets at the point of care, often to play educational videos for patients. The quality of the graphics is a big advantage to many doctors, and also the fact that they can adapt tablets to their use.

And of course there’s the fact that nearly everyone loves tablets. Doctors who use them in their practices have observed that while patients feel desktop computers take doctors’ attention away from them, they do not have this perception with tablets. Looking at diagrams or video together can enhance doctor-patient communication and facilitate shared decision-making. Some apps allow the physician to draw and jot notes directly on the diagram, turning the tablet into a digital sketchpad. In this case the technology is not replacing human interaction, but enhancing it.

Screens are not going anywhere – and in fact, seem to be multiplying. But how doctors use technology can make the difference between alienating patients or improving interaction with them.

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