The Kids Are All Tech: Device and Technology Usage Among Medical Students

Clare Coda, a third-year medical student at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, uses her iPhone daily as a medical reference tool. She'll use it to quickly look up something said by an attending physician during a patient meeting so she can fully engage in the conversation, or she will look up the generic names of medications referred to by their brand names at the hospital where she's doing her rotations.

According to Epocrates' 8th Annual Future Physicians of America Survey, digital references are the first stop for clinical answers for 66 percent of Ms. Coda's peers. The survey focused heavily on technology usage and trends among current medical students and features the input of more than 1,000 medical students from all 50 states.

"They're using devices constantly," Velyn Sia, senior director of marketing at Epocrates, an athenahealth company, says of the current generation of medical students. "Though not everything is done from a smartphone, we've seen the device varies based on the student's location and the content needed."

She references a 31 percent increase in tablet usage among medical students as compared to last year's survey, with 54 percent of medical students now using a tablet during training. Of tablet users, only 18 percent are required to use them by their medical school — the rest simply like using tablets.

Ms. Coda says about half her class has a tablet, and Drexel recently began giving them to first-year medical students. "Tablets are definitely becoming more popular," she says. "They seem more professional — if someone sees you using your phone, they think you're texting."

Medical students are not choosing between smartphones and tablets, however. According to the survey, 44 percent of medical students are digital omnivores, using a smartphone, tablet and computer routinely in an academic or professional capacity. Ms. Sia says this result matches the 47 percent of currently practicing physicians who are digital omnivores — though that figure will likely jump to 82 percent next year. "More and more physicians will be consuming information across devices," she says, especially those just starting out.

Hospitals, then, should prepare for a workforce that has embraced these mobile devices in their practice, and expects to continue using them. Ms. Coda says a hospital’s policy on using tablets and other devices may influence her decision to work there. A restrictive bring your own device policy would "definitely send up a red flag about how tech-friendly they are in general," says Ms. Coda.

Because smartphones, tablets and other technologies are so ingrained in these students, Ms. Sia sees their unique ability to use technology as a tool to embrace patient-centered care. "These new physicians live and breathe technology," she says, "and their challenge will be to integrate technology into their workflow in a way that facilitates a patient encounter without getting in the way."

Ms. Sia points to a higher willingness among medical students to prescribe or suggest apps to their patients. "What was really different from physicians practicing today is that 82 percent of medical students are willing to recommend apps, compared to a little over 40 percent of physicians," she says. "These medical students are really focused on using the most current technology to help patients take a more active role in their care."

They also understand limits and boundaries. "These students are very conscious of what it means to be HIPAA compliant," says Ms. Sia. She says they also see patient portals and other formal structures as the best place to communicate with patients, rather than social media or other casual mediums. Ms. Coda likes the patient portal at the hospital she's working at. "Having patients email you could get out of hand," she says. "But getting written requests through the patient portal — I think that's appropriate."

"These are very smart young doctors," says Ms. Sia, who sees an opportunity for hospitals to further integrate technology into patient care by looking to current medical students and recent graduate students. "Hospitals need to take what's good about technology and determine what can improve patient care without getting in the way," she says. "If anyone will be able to figure this out, it's the students who grew up with technology."

"I'm glad these guys will be my doctors," she says.

More Articles on Physicians and Technology:

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