It may seem like a tool from the dark ages, but up until fairly recently, the pager was one of the primary communication tools in a doctor’s arsenal. Whether it was a patient emergency or a problem at the hospital, pagers were the device that every M.D. had on their person at all times. After all, it was just what you did.

And it wasn’t that long ago that doctors were found pushing their eight-pound laptops around on rolling carts, or using tablets that required a stylus and a degree in computer engineering just to maintain.

Things have changed a lot in the past decade or so, and between the innovations in the smartphone industry and the development of tablets that consumers have flocked to purchase, it’s inevitable that the medical industry would take notice and make a few changes on their own.

So what’s changed so much and how has it helped doctors diagnose your pain more effectively? Let’s take a look and find out.

The Tablet Generation

In the late 1990s, tablet computers were all the rage. These were full personal computers, typically running the Windows operating system, that did everything a laptop or PC could do. The main differences were that a stylus instead of a mouse was used as a primary input device, and there was additional software that enabled handwriting recognition. It was a doctor’s dream tool.

It was everyone’s idea of the perfect computer at the time, but the reality of the situation was a different world. Handwriting recognition was never really perfect, and most doctors’ notoriously poor penmanship didn’t make the process easier. Plus, the tablets were pricey, and eventually poor sales caused them just to disappear from the market. Laptops became the computer of choice for most people in the medical profession, even though they just weren’t as portable or light that everyone wanted.

In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone, and shortly thereafter there were rumors that they had been shopping around a tablet of some kind, even visiting hospitals in the process. The way the legendary CEO Steve Jobs apparently saw it, what would become known as the iPad could revolutionize the way that doctors treat their patients. A mobile computer that could access the Internet and handle complex tasks without a stylus could change the healthcare system. Turns out, he was right.

With the iPad came competition from other manufacturers, including Asus, Samsung and Google. Even Microsoft has entered the fray, and soon the Microsoft Surface will hit the market as well. As a result, doctors now have lots of tablet options to choose from, most of them with the similar features.

A recent article in Pain Medicine News discussed the tablet revolution, particularly the transition that happened at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Mass. From that piece:

“‘Until recently, tablet computers were too heavy, had too short a battery life, were too expensive or had too poor a user interface to serve as an effective tool,’ said Henry Feldman, MD, chief information architect for Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians, speaking at the American Medical Informatics Association meeting as part of a panel on the use of tablets in health care.”

Cited in that same article are some of the benefits. Long battery life is cited as being a high point, as previous tablets required constant charging to keep functional. There are also waterproof skins available for most tablets, which means that those skins can be sterilized, thus making it safe to bring the device into an operating room or other sterile environment. The result is 600 doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center using iPads of their own, and we’re sure more are on the way.

Admittedly, the iPad is the front runner in the field, mainly because of its popularity and support from thousands of developers. It’s also durable, fairly inexpensive and easy for any doctor to buy at a local electronics reseller. But there is lots of competition in the works, and soon we’ll see tablets made by other manufacturers out in the field. Things will just get better as the competition grows, and doctors will eventually have lots of options to choose from.

Humans and Machines Together
The Six Million Dollar Man was just a TV show and Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t really The Terminator, but we are getting closer and closer to having man and machine live in harmony. One example of this found in pain clinics all over the world, and that’s spinal cord stimulation.

When a patient comes in to see a doctor with a back problem, sometimes the problem comes from the nerve that transmits the pain. Maybe the nerve was damaged after a surgical procedure, or the sensation is similar to burning. To solve the issue, an electrical impulse can be transmitted to that nerve, which then interferes with the brain’s perception of the pain. But how do you get that impulse to the nerve? That’s where a spinal cord stimulator comes into play.

This revolutionary device is a medical implant, but you can think of it as one step closer to becoming the cyborg that we all have seen in the movies. Basically, a patient goes in to see their local pain doctor and is delivered a local anesthetic and a small amount of sedatives. The delivery system for the spinal cord stimulator is a soft, thin wire that has electrical leads placed at its tip. This wire is inserted into the body via a needle, and it’s positioned into the epidural space — the area around the nerve — so it can get as close as possible to the problem area. This connects to a transmitter that can be controlled in various ways, allowing the patient or their doctor to adjust the amount of current delivered to the nerve to compensate appropriately for the pain.

Now this isn’t new technology in the sense that these types of devices have been around for a long time. But the latest and greatest versions are smaller, cheaper and easier to conceal, as opposed to previous generations. That makes them more accessible, and easier to obtain for the average person. Sure, there’s no “I’ll be back” and no one will be jumping buildings while a cool ‘70s sound effect plays in the background, but it certainly is a step in the right direction.

Harnessing the ‘Net
When was the last time you opened up an encyclopedia? How about looking up something in a dictionary? Chances are pretty good that instead you went to or Wikipedia to get what you needed, so why wouldn’t a doctor do the same thing?

An article featured on and produced by MedPage Today and ABC Medical News Unit talked about that very issue, and how it affects doctors specifically. From the article:

“‘Early in practice, if I had a clinical question to research, I had to go to the library, pull out multiple years of the Index Medicus, look up the topic, write down the references, go to the stacks and pull the volumes of journals, find the article, read the article, go to the copy machine and make a copy and if I were lucky, I would have my answer in about four hours,’ said John Messmer, MD, associate professor at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey.”

Having access to the information you need quickly and easily can be the difference between life and death in an emergency situation. Combine that with the tablet movement and the ability to access the net from those devices, research couldn’t be any easier.

Living in the Future
We may not be driving flying cars, and no one is going to be riding on a flying hoverboard anytime soon, but we certainly are living in a new age of technology. The devices we use every day are now more powerful than the computers of just ten years ago. Access to information has never been easier. And the medical community has benefitted from all of this.

The next time you enter a doctor’s office, take a look around at the technology around you and how your doctor is using it. Who knows, it might just save your life.


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