Will the Apple iPad and other Next-generation Devices Make 2010 the Year of the Tablet PC?

MDNG Psychiatry, August 2008, Volume 8, Issue 8

There certainly was quite a bit of hype surrounding Apple's February unveiling of the iPad tablet computer. Now that all of the excitement has died down, let's take a look at what the device has to offer for physicians and what that might mean for the tablet market.

I agree with many of the criticisms you may have heard about the iPad: it has no built-in camera for taking pictures or video-conferencing; it can’t multitask applications (a potential deal breaker for anyone who planned on replacing a netbook or notebook computer with an iPad); it’s pricey ($499 and up) given its lack of features and abilities; users have to rely on AT&T for 3G service; and, astoundingly, the iPad does not support Flash. The Apple iPad also appears to suffer from the same weak encryption and other security issues that afflict the iPhone, which means that unauthorized personnel could be able to view sensitive personal data and other information. The iPad is also lacking in several other security management capabilities, including the option to protect access via PIN or pass code and remotely lock the device and wipe its memory in case of loss or theft.

On the other hand, Apple has a strong history of improving its devices over time. The iPhone sold slowly when it first launched, but demand skyrocketed when Apple initiated a series of price cuts. Similarly, the iPod was not an immediate hit. At first, critics lambasted the $400 price tag, the unconventional scroll wheel, and the lack of Windows compatibility. But prices kept coming down, and the devices kept getting better and better. If past experience with Apple is any indicator (and I believe it is), then the iPad will probably follow a similar stellar developmental trajectory. Look for Apple to soon announce a significant price cut for a second-generation device that solves many of the launch product’s failings.

What might really set the tablet market on fire—and give Apple a run for its money—will be the introduction of a new generation of PC tablets, some based on NVIDIA’s new Tegra mobile processors. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, NVIDIA, which has declared 2010 as “the year of a tablet revolution,” demonstrated a full HD Internet touchscreen tablet for Verizon 4G wireless networks. Plans for new tablets have also been announced by HP (running Windows 7 OS) and Dell (running Google Android OS).

What does this mean for physicians? Will most of your colleagues soon be carrying these mobile devices as they roam between exam rooms? The tablet does make an appealing substitute for the traditional chart because it mimics the size and shape of a paper chart. People are already raving about the iPad’s super-slim case and light weight, which makes it easy to hold in one hand. The tablet also allows for a more intimate physician‑patient experience compared to the larger traditional PC, which acts as a physical barrier between doctor and patient. Finally, the iPad can run for 10 hours on a single battery charge, which makes it easier to get though a whole day of visits without having to worry about running out of power.

However, I’m not so sure that physicians will wholeheartedly embrace the iPad. I see two major flaws with tablets as they are currently designed with regard to EHRs and other physician health IT applications. The first issue is the lack of a real keyboard for typing freehand notes. I find it frustrating to use a virtual on-screen keyboard; it simply slows me down too much. Of course, this is less of a problem if you use speech recognition software to dictate notes into your EHR. The second issue is the privacy and security of protected healthcare information. As I mentioned, the iPad has some significant security issues that need to be addressed before I would feel safe using one with sensitive patient information. Until hardware and software makers can figure out a way to solve these fundamental issues, I believe most physicians will continue to run their EHR systems on desktop and notebook PCs.

Dr. Bertman is Physician Editor-in-Chief of MDNG: Primary Care/Cardiology Edition. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at Brown University and president of AmazingCharts.com, a leading developer of EHR software. He is also the founder and president of AfraidToAsk.com, a consumer website focusing on personal medical topics. He is in private practice in Hope Valley, RI.

There certainly was quite a bit of hype surrounding Apple’s February unveiling of the iPad tablet computer. Now that all of the excitement has died down, let’s take a look at what the device has to offer for physicians and what that might mean for the tablet market. Although I have never been a fan of tablet PCs—and I have multiple issues with Apple’s take on the tablet—I do believe the tablet market is about to heat up with the introduction of a whole new generation of products. These devices may eventually become the most natural platform for delivering electronic health records (EHR) and other physician-oriented information systems. But right now, they still have a long way to go.