With Apple’s soon to be released iPad re-energizing the tablet market, there has been much speculation on how the tablet will transform personal computing.  However, the tablet has been with us for quite some time. Almost a decade ago, I started testing and using Windows-based Tablet PCs for two cancer centers in Canada. They worked pretty well for what we were trying to do back then, but had definite limitations within the healthcare environment. If Apple’s iPad is to survive in healthcare, let alone transform it, then there are five key deficits Apple must address.

1) Input Method(s) and User Interface

This is the most crucial area and where the most problems arise.  For the tablet to be accepted by the healthcare community, versatility is the key. The basic input methods such as a touch screen (or pen based), keyboard (or lack of keyboard) and handwriting recognition accuracy need to be revamped and revolutionized. True, all of these features exist in today’s tablets, but they have yet to be implemented in the most effective and user friendly method.

In order to be transformative, the iPad will need to include inputs that consider the workflows and usages in healthcare. For example, consider input methods such as voice recognition and audio input (think transcription and also patient voice recording), photo/video capabilities (think user recognition, but also photos for wound care or tracking skin infections), and even the option for additional “medical stuff”, presumably through accessory hardware such as measurement of temperature or blood pressure. Such considerations would allow the iPad to be integrated in the clinical field in ways previous tablets were not.  A further discussion of the robust user interface the Apple Tablet operating system could bring was discussed in a previous post.

2) Look and Feel

For the most part, tablets used in the medical world have been too heavy and are often not built with enough toughness.  It might seem frivolous, but there are good reasons why a tablet has to look and feel right in a healthcare setting. Prior to computers, patients had the undivided attention of their physicians.  Now, with the advent of mobile computing and tablets,  a consistent complaint from patients is the lack of eye contact physicians make because of the computer screen they are staring at.  This is why the weight, look, and feel of a tablet is so key in the health care setting.  The more comfortable a physician is with their tablet, the less time they spend dividing their attention between the patient and the computer, allowing for a more seamless patient-physician interaction.

3) Battery Capacity

The battery on a typical tablet used in the health care setting needs to last long enough to get through an entire shift, which can be anywhere from 8 to 12 hours. Currently there are health care tablets available that can get close to 12 hours, but with repeated use this number significantly declines.

The battery issue might be the most interesting issue the health care community might have to consider with the Apple Tablet.  Apple is notorious for having non-removable batteries in their products.  The iPhone, iPod Touch, and even the newest MacBooks do not have removable batteries.  Apple claims they use high end batteries that lose capacity much slower than their competitors, this was their reasoning when they took out removable batteries from the latest Macbook.  If Apple decides not to include a removable battery in their tablet, it could be a huge blow in their efforts to be embraced by the healthcare community.

4) Privacy and Security

One of the great features healthcare tablets offer is their portability, but this same portability makes them targets for theft.  General physical security needs to be built into the device.  Also, software and hardware based privacy and security measures need to be options in healthcare tablets as well. Currently no manufacturer has yet to master these in full. Without getting overly technical, some examples include user recognition (e.g. finger print, retina, face, voice), patient verification, data encryption over wireless connections, remote data storage, and auto-log off features. In a HIPAA-dominated healthcare world, these features will be critical to widespread adoption.

5) Cost

Cost is always a central issue in health care.  But today’s healthcare tablet’s are generally priced greater than most high end notebooks, which works in Apple’s favor.  Current projections have the Apple tablet hitting the $1,000 price point.  If this is true, the healthcare industry might actually find using the Apple Tablet is a cost saving proposition, which usually isn’t the case when Apple products are in play. However, it will also be important to consider emerging competitors who may price lower than Apple, with some reports suggesting prices as low as $200.

If some of these issues are addressed on Wednesday, Apple might actually be a legitimate player in the healthcare tablet arena.  I’ll report back later this week to let you know.

Iltifat Husain and Satish Misra contributed to this post