As the debut of the iPad fast approaches, speculation about it is reaching a fevered pitch. Scanning the thousands of articles written about the iPad’s potential, one may walk away thinking that Steve Jobs has just cured cancer, ended global warming, and established peace in the Middle East. Some people are even calling Apple’s latest creation the “Jesus tablet.” While the iPad probably falls somewhere short of some of those lofty projections, it has already done what Apple seems to do best – transformed the way we look at an existing market, in this case mobile computing and the tablet. We’ve talked previously about how the iPhone paved the way for the iPad in healthcare. Again, Apple’s entry into this market has signaled a huge shift in the way users will interact with the tablet and, through it, their environment.  This new user interface has a great deal of potential to change the way physicians deliver care. But perhaps more importantly, it could also have profound impacts on the way patients experience healthcare.

Innovative therapies

Over the past decade, there have been a number of examples of novel technologies being used either therapeutically for sick patients or in preventative care. For example, there have been numerous trials, with more success in the pediatric population, that use text messaging to remind patients to take their medications. When the iPhone transformed the user interface for the smartphone, therapies centered on that platform also emerged – autism and major depression are two conditions with iPhone apps that are therapeutic in nature. Enter the iPad. With a more advanced touchscreen, a high-quality webcam, and perhaps even 3d graphics, the possibilities become far more rich.

Take children with cancer – these kids can be hospitalized for weeks at a time and, due to the chemotherapy, stuck largely in isolation for most of that time. An app that utilizes the webcam to connect kids while playing a fun and interactive game together would provide a far richer interaction than a networked gaming console. Or consider the numerous elderly patients who succumb to delirium while in the hospital largely because, on top of being sick, life in the hospital, void of sunlight and normal sleep-wake patterns, gets so disorienting. Consider an app that, much like the mentally challenging games on the Nintendo DS, helps older patients stay a little more active during the day and perhaps ward of delirium. Will the iPad cure cancer or, for that matter, anything? No. But what it will do is provide some interesting and creative adjuncts to standard therapy that could make the patient’s quality of life a little better.

Improved patient-provider communication

In the ever growing iPhone app store, educational apps are among the most numerous. One of the biggest reasons why is because the interface allows user to interact with the material in a number of different ways. Take the Blausen Human Atlas or Pocket Heart – both of these apps allow the user to interact with anatomy in an incredibly rich way. With much more powerful graphics capabilities, these kinds of apps can certainly be taken to another level.

Consider a patient going into surgery. Today, explanation of the surgery is restricted to some form of charades by the surgeon and 2d radiology images. An app that allows 3d reconstructions of a patient’s scans to be pulled onto the iPad and manipulated would allow for a far better explanation, improving patient-physician communication. Or how about the diabetic patients or the heart failure patients? These poor folks are often subjected to hours of mind-numbing “educational” videos in the hospital – iPad apps could bring an element of interactivity that allows patients to engage with material that is critical to their health. Finally, consider the stroke patient. There are rumors that the iPad’s camera will be sufficiently sensitive to allow facial recognition. Perhaps then it could also be used to detect facial, or for that matter limb and trunk, motion with apps designed for post-stroke rehabilitation therapy. In a “game” format, individual goals outside of professional physical therapy could help empower the patient as they fight to recover.

The key opportunity that the iPad offers here is not just another platform to convey information, but a way to make it fun and engaging. While the iPad won’t replace a good physician taking the time to talk to a patient, it could certainly augment the patient-provider relationship in a fun and engaging way.

These are just a few ways that the iPad could transform the way a patient understands their illness and interacts with their healthcare providers. Among the most elusive goals in medicine is helping patients understand complex diseases and empower them to manage these conditions. Nothing will ever replace a strong patient-provider relationship, a personal support network, and evidence-based therapies based on a thorough scientific foundation. But the iPad could herald the introduction of innovative adjuncts that help patients take control of their own health and improve their quality of life.