Voice-enabled medical search app for iPhone speeds inquiries

Cardiologist adds new app to his mobile arsenal

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As smartphones and tablet computers infiltrate the field of medicine, doctors are finding new applications to provide shortcuts for their busy workdays. And their choices include a new voice-enabled medical search app for the iPhone announced by Nuance Communications.

Dr. Jon Wahrenberger, a cardiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., said he began using the new Dragon Medical Mobile Search App from Nuance on his iPhone 4 earlier this week after trying out the beta version for two months. The app is free for a limited time.

It works like this: The user dictates a medical term into a smartphone, and the app looks for information about that term on the Web, from sources such as Drugs.mobi, IMO, Medline, MedScape and Google. The process takes about four seconds, and Wahrenberger said in an interview that it's quicker and simpler to initiate a search by saying a complex medical term than it is to type such a term into a search engine with a keyboard.

He has also tried a similar consumer-focused mobile voice search tool, but the medical version is able to produce results more focused on doctors' needs. There are tens of thousands of drugs and diseases that doctors need to be able to research quickly.

"It's been a great little tool to have," he said. "The beauty of the app is the speed with which you launch it, speak a term and get results from a drug database or about medical nomenclature. It's particularly helpful looking up drugs or catching up on pharmacology."

Since he sees up to 30 patients a day, Wahrenberger said it's valuable to have such a timesaving app. "It might take half a minute to type pulmonary hypertension, but I can say it in a second," he said. "And it doesn't tax your fingers or hands."

Wahrenberger said he doesn't like to carry a laptop into patient visits because it seems disruptive. But he has found the iPhone more discreet, and his patients seem to be appreciate the fact that he checks a resource instead of working from memory. "Patients actually love it when they see you are looking something up and they know you care and don't want to get it wrong," he said.

Wahrenberger teaches his medical students that "you can't know everything because medicine is so vast, so you have to know some basic things to make a quick response -- and beyond the basics you need to know how to find information."

Wahrenberger has used a desktop version of Nuance's Dragon Naturally Speaking voice-to-text software to dictate patient notes for eight years, so he understands how to speak carefully in order to get accurate results. Dragon Naturally Speaking for doctors has gone from "acceptable to phenomenal with accuracy," he said, noting he still runs into accuracy errors on occasion -- but only rarely.

With the new mobile search tool, he said he has learned to be patient and wait a moment before speaking after he launches the app. If he speaks too soon, the software might miss his first spoken word.

Wahrenberger said he is finding doctors in his medical center using iPhones and iPads because they see the value of easily documenting the results of patient exams in electronic records and then interacting with the electronic records. And now that it's possible to connect iPhones and iPads to a Microsoft Exchange Server, "people are loving this," he said.

He said he'd like to see a version of the mobile search app designed for the iPad as well. Nuance said it does have plans to offer an iPad version, but has not said when such a product might become available.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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