My smart phone helps me be a better doctor


Your child has a rash and is acting a little sick. You reach for your phone–not to call the doctor, but to look up rashes on Google or your symptom checker app.

This, according to the latest report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, is the direction we are moving. As a doctor, I think it’s great.

In May of 2011, a third of cell phone users had a smart phone; in a mere year and a half, that’s jumped to half. Given that 85 percent of US adults have a cell phone, that’s a lot of smart phones out there. And along with the many other things people do with their smart phones, half of them are looking up health information and one in five has a health-related app.

Among parents, the numbers are even bigger. Ninety percent have cell phones, higher than the general population, and of them two-thirds have smart phones. And not surprisingly, they are more likely to look up health information or have a health app.

I suppose I should be bummed or worried that people might be turning to the Internet rather than to me, but I’m not. You hear talk about the dangers of getting bad information from the Internet, and that’s always possible, but I don’t see that happening all that often. I do see people getting information that scares them (and usually doesn’t apply to them), but the good news is that when they get scared they call, and we have a chance to talk about it.

I see this as an incredible opportunity. My smart phone helps me be a better doctor. It lets me look up drug dosages and find out which immunizations people need to travel to Chile–it helps me deal with the information overload that has become intrinsically part of the practice of medicine. I use my smart phone to communicate with patients by email and sometimes text, answering questions quickly in between doing other things (and I can copy and paste the conversation into the medical record). Patients send me photos of rashes (taken with their phones), which is really helpful as it can be very hard to describe a rash over the phone. I can decide if the patient needs to come in–and if I’m stumped, I can forward the picture to a dermatologist.

Because communicating is so easy, I get real-time information from my patients that helps me take care of problems before they get big–and if I’m not the best person to help them, I can quickly connect them to the person who is. This kind of communication has to be done carefully and safely, but with common sense and some safeguards that’s very manageable.

And I’m just skimming the surface of the possible. While most of the health apps that people use now are related to diet or exercise, there are all sorts of apps that help patients keep track of their symptoms and medications and communicate the information to their doctors. This can make all the difference for people with chronic diseases like diabetes. Here at Boston Childrens, my colleagues have developed apps that help you find a flu shot–and apps that track outbreaks of illnesses like the flu so that doctors can be ready. Every day there is a new app that is full of possibility and promise.

The Internet, too, is a treasure trove of information that can help people learn about and take charge of their health and well-being. As someone who spends a lot of time reading what’s out there and writing myself, I’m particularly aware of it. I have such a limited time with patients in the exam room; if I can refer people to websites to read about general health topics, I can spend more time talking about their particular situation and concerns. I do this already (I’ve been referring various patients to the post I wrote about arsenic and rice, for example, or sending them to the Facebook page I created to curate everything I write) but smart phones allow me to do it more efficiently. I can email links–or, instead of giving a written handout to a parent (which, if it even makes it out of the exam room, usually ends up in the trash), I could print them up a QR code. My friend Dr. Natasha Burgert has QR codes up in exam rooms–while patients wait, they can read the latest health information.

Good health care is about good communication. It’s about getting people the information they need. It’s about partnerships, and empowering people to take charge of their lives and their health. Smart phone technology gives us the tools to do all of these things better than we ever have before.

Of course, patients are catching on to this before doctors. But we’ll catch up. Count me in.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Boston Children’s Hospital blog, Vector, the Boston Children’s Hospital science and clinical innovation blog, and MD Mama at


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