University of Vermont

One Tablet, One Extra-Strength Dose of Information for Medical Students

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Third-year medical student George "Bud" Vana uses a Google Nexus tablet while rounding at Fletcher Allen Health Care. (Photo by Raj Chawla, UVM Medical Photography)

UVM College of Medicine students heading to their clerkships in March will likely be bringing the same tools generations of students have found useful, including a stethoscope, a supply of pens, a notepad, and maybe a medical reference guide. This year, they have one more item to slip into the pocket of their white coat: A Google Nexus 7 tablet.

After thoroughly testing the devices, the College decided to purchase a tablet for every member of the class of 2015, said Jill Jemison, director of technology services for the College of Medicine. They were distributed to students March 8, making the College one of the first medical schools in the country to be using this particular tablet as a professional tool.

Functionality is key. After the device debuted in the summer of 2012, information technology staff and several students vetted the tablet to make sure it worked with all of the tools and applications medical students commonly use, including COMET, the College’s online learning environment, the College’s email and calendar system, a virtual microscope application, a clinical interaction tracker, and several other programs. The tablet, which uses the Android operating system and apps from the Google Play store, performed well in all of the tests, Jemison said. The devices are also equipped with the same sophisticated security features as smartphones and other tablets supported by the College.

“The goal is for students to be able to bring them as a reference device,” Jemison said. “This is evidence-based medicine at their fingertips.”

One of the main selling points was cost: At just under $200 each, the tablets carry a “price point we could feel good about,” Jemison said.  Other universities jumped into the tablet market earlier, in some cases relying on one-time grant funding for more expensive devices, but Jemison said she wanted to make sure costs “were not passed along to students.”

“If this is an important learning device it needs to be something we support and sustain,” she said.

Andy Jones, a second-year medical student who helped test the tablet, said the convenience and functionality of the device make it a viable tool for students.

“It’s a world of well-respected peer reviewed information in your pocket,” he said.

Before pursuing medicine Jones spent six years in the information technology field, most recently as associate director of help desk services at California College of the Arts, so his background makes him particularly suited to vetting the tablet’s technical features.

“Everything I wanted to go to my computer to do I went to the tablet first,” he said, finding that its ease of use and portability was great for doing research and accessing information quickly.

Bud Vana, a third-year medical student, brought his own tablet with him during clerkships in Maine, Connecticut, and at Fletcher Allen Health Care, with an eye on trying it out as a reference device. He consulted with the IT staff as they tested the Google tablets and will be on hand to help train students. During his clerkships, he found himself using it to quickly access the most current information available, including potential drug interactions or relevant research. At a site in Maine, he was able to pull up new information on genetic diseases for a pediatric geneticist. At another site, he could access in a moment statistics a pulmonary doctor needed about a rare condition.

“It’s a way we can become more useful to the attending and help out the team,” he said. “It makes us more productive.”

As the volume of medical research continues to grow, Jemison said knowing “the question to ask and the database to use” will only become more important for physicians. This, in turn, has implications for medical education.

“Most of technology is culture change,” she said. “We have to be respectful of the change it will have in the teaching culture.”

Introducing the tablets now is an opportunity for students to learn early on how they want to integrate technology into their practice. For Vana, he sees it as preparation for his career and fodder for thought on how “these devices may improve the patient/doctor experience.”

“This is an opportunity to learn etiquette and best practices,” he said. “UVM can send out medical students to harness this technology in the right way.”

Clerkship directors will also be receiving tablets and training on how to use them, Jemison said, but ultimately students will be leading the way. In some cases, this may mean having conversations with practitioners at their clerkships sites regarding how and when they are using the tablets.

“The students are going to have to be ambassadors for this technology,” she said. “They have the opportunity to help change the culture.”