Handheld computers becoming popular

Experts predict that within a few years, most doctors will use handheld computing devices such as the Palm handhelds or Pocket PC as an integral part of their everyday practice. Some risk managers are urging physicians to use the devices because they can reduce errors by providing more thorough documentation than traditional notes.

The devices can be used to track and update medical records for prescribing, and for billing and practice management. The trend is moving strongly in this direction, according to Harris Interactive Computing in Physician’s Practice, a report by Harris Interactive in Rochester, NY, but the pace of change suggests that a majority of doctors will not do this for several years.

The proportion of all physicians who use handheld personal devices increased from 15% in 1999 to 26% this year. However, some of these doctors are using the devices mainly for personal activities. The number using them as an integral part of their everyday practice has almost doubled (from 10% in 1999 to 18% this year).

Tech use in the hospital

Use of handheld personal devices is higher among doctors under 45 years old (33%) than among older doctors (21%). It is also higher among those who are wholly or partly hospital-based (33% and 29%) than among those who are mostly office-based (23%). Usage also is higher among physicians in larger practices than in solo or small group practices.

Currently only a few physicians (3%) use handheld devices to track their work for billing purposes, but that is up from only 1% in 1999. Just over a quarter (27%) track their work on a computer (not including those who use handheld devices), a modest increase from 23% in 1999. Half of all practicing physicians (49%) still record their billing codes on cards or notes (down slightly from 54% in 1999). Fifteen percent use billing codes that are generated automatically as part of the clinical record-taking process.

Many physicians who don’t currently use handheld devices to take notes in their practice are uncertain about when they will start to use them, but only a minority (29%) does not expect to use them in the next five years. There is clearly a great deal of uncertainty. Only 11% of those not using handheld devices expect to start doing so in the next 18 months. And further, 22% expects to do so in the next five years.

Given these expectations and the current rate of growth in the use of handhelds over the last two years, one can reasonably estimate that about half of all doctors will be using handheld devices by 2004 or 2005. However, this rate of growth could be greatly increased if payers, hospitals and/or group practices mandated their use.

The Leapfrog Group of large employers and many others believe that electronic medical records and electronic prescribing would substantially reduce medical errors and improve the quality of care, and they are pushing hard for their use. Handheld devices are likely to be used for these purposes in many hospitals and practices — so the rate of use may accelerate faster than the estimates given above.

These research findings come from Harris Interactive Computing in Physician’s Practice, based on interviews with a nationwide sample of 834 practicing physicians surveyed in January and February 2001. For more information, go to the Harris Interactive web site at www.harrisinteractive.com.