It never fails to surprise me when I meet a doctor who can write computer code. How do people who work such long hours caring for patients find the time to build websites and mobile apps?
But in an era of electronic medical records and telemedicine, it's handy to be technically proficient. So some doctors are teaching themselves to code or attending "dev bootcamps" to learn from professionals. These doctors are leveraging their combined knowledge of computer science and medicine to tackle health care problems.
Yale cardiologist E. Kevin Hall, for example, one of the best-known doctor-programmers in the health industry, recently developed an iPhone-based clinical study using Apple's ResearchKit to gather information about the quality of life of patients who might have cardiomyopathy.
Here are five ways that tech-savvy doctors are using computer skills:
Building Apps to Monitor Patients At Home
Hall says he doesn't get to spend nearly enough time with his patients. So he developed the iPhone-based study to get a more complete picture about how they're faring. Hall says what he learns from the app will tell him how to improve his patients' treatment.
Hall isn't the only doctor using mobile technology to check in on patient wellbeing. Tech-savvy doctors at Stanford Children's Hospital recently launched a new mobile program that lets diabetic patients share their blood glucose levels with their providers and caregivers. Across the country, other hospitals have built apps to study asthma, Parkinson's disease, autism, epilepsy, breast cancer and other ailments.
Moreover, some doctors have jumped ship to work at the exploding number of mobile health startups. Omar Rayward, an ophthalmologist-turned-computer programmer, helped build an iPhone app called Vida Health, which pairs personal health and nutrition coaches with chronically-ill patients.
Tackling Clinical Problems
Warris Bokhari, an anesthesiologist who has worked for the National Health Service in the U.K., says computer skills can help doctors grapple with gaping inefficiencies in medical practice. He says doctors who code have built tools such as apps for collaborating with other doctors or sharing patient information securely. Two of the most popular—the doctors' networking app Doximity and the grisly and useful "Instagram for doctors" known as Figure1—were co-founded by doctors.
Moreover, doctors with basic coding skills could think about medicine on a systems level, says Matthew Wetschler, an emergency medicine resident at Stanford Medicine. With an insiders' perspective, they could potentially build products to improve clinical processes such as how doctors perform rounds or admit patients.
Using Innovative Technologies in Their Practice
"Technology advances are just tools for doctors to perform their work better," Rayward says.
Doctors who are comfortable using technology will have an easier time navigating the products and services that have hit the market in the past five years. They might find it less time-consuming to, for example, use virtual consultation tools, video conferencing, mobile heart monitors and wireless blood pressure cuffs. Or they might try new virtual reality games for reducing pain.
"As a physician I have constantly looked for technology-based improvements in how I work with my peers and patient," said Will Gordon, a Boston internist who can code. Gordon is also on the product team at a health startup called Kyruus, which matches physicians and patients to improve referrals and scheduling.
Navigating Electronic Medical Records
By 2013, nearly half of all doctors had adopted a basic electronic medical record system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's a major increase from 2006, when just ten percent of physicians had made the switch.
Doctors who can code are having an easier time adapting to these systems, and use them more efficiently, says Dan Kamyck, who works for the health-technology company Act.MD.
Moreover, Kamyck says these doctors are taking the lead on training their colleagues, and are recommending the best technologies for their organizations to use that will improve patient outcomes.
Electronic medical records are (by no means perfect), but they aim to reduce medical errors and provide doctors with vital information about their patients at critical moments.
Recommending Health Apps to Patients
Apple's App Store now offers hundreds of mobile health apps that claim to do everything from diagnosing melanomas to tracking your fitness. Which of these apps are potentially useful, and which of them are snake oil?
Doctors lack a clear way to differentiate between the health apps on the market. But some doctors are leveraging their technical skills to root out the most valuable apps.
"A doctor that is tech-savvy enough to filter the helpful and trustworthy ones could help certain groups of people," says Rayward, "such as young people with diabetes."
Are you a doctor who can code? How is it benefitting your patients? Let us know at @KQEDScience on Twitter.