When patients transfer hospitals, physicians change shifts, or doctors don't know a new patient's full history, fatal mistakes can happen. Up to 440,000 Americans die each year from preventable medical errors, making them the nation's third-leading cause of death. And by some estimates, better communication among staff could prevent as many as one-third of those mistakes.
That's what the people behind a new Apple Watch app, Doximity, are banking on. They think the Apple Watch can enable medical professionals to share information easily, securely, and quickly — and perhaps most importantly, hands-free.
The forthcoming app is among several that aim to help watch-wearers track, share, remember, or access health data. But while most Apple Watch apps target patients, Doximity's — announced Thursday — appears to be one of the first that's meant for use by physicians. It's essentially a wrist-sized version of the company's messaging system for doctors, which already exists on smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers. Clinicians who belong to Doximity's nationwide network can share information with one another by dictating, sending, and receiving brief, encrypted messages — even if they don't work for the same hospital, or don't have an Apple Watch.
"For a medical provider doing a lot of things with their hands and minds all day, to be able to look your wrist and communicate with other doctors by speaking — we think that'll have a profound impact on the health-care system," co-founder Nate Gross told BuzzFeed News.
Doximity's tests, he said, show that voice-recognition software can now accurately transcribe tongue-twisters like "endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography" (you know, the technique for diagnosing and treating gallbladder and pancreas issues).
Doctors have long used antiquated fax machines and pagers to communicate with one another while protecting patients' privacy under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. That has slowly been changing as more physicians carry personal electronics — but personal email and text messages aren't secure. They might be efficient, but they're not HIPAA-compliant. And while some hospitals have an official network of wireless communication devices that allow internal staff to communicate with each other, they don't facilitate communication with outside staff.
"Even the drug dealers have gotten rid of their beepers. We're like, the only ones who still have them," said Dr. Robert Wachter, an academic physician at the University of California, San Francisco, who recently published the book The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine's Computer Age. "No one has quite figured out how to completely replace the ability of a nurse to signal a doctor, 'You need to respond this second.'"
Wachter, who is not involved with Doximity, said the company's new app could ensure that clinicians' messages are secure. "If this replaces a non-HIPAA-compliant text message that people would otherwise send to one another, that's an advance, although I think there are apps you have on your phone that do the same thing," he told BuzzFeed News. "You kind of get down to, 'Is this simply just a slightly more convenient way of texting?'"
Doximity is at its core a LinkedIn for doctors, and since it was founded in 2011, it has introduced more ways for them to communicate. For physicians who want to spend less time with their fax machines without quitting cold turkey, a toll-free fax number from Doximity lets them send and receive electronic copies of faxes through phones and tablets. The new watch app won't let doctors read faxed documents in their entirety — the screen is a little small for that — but it will ping them when a fax is waiting to be read.
Doximity's growing network — it says more than half of all U.S. physicians have signed up — paired with the Apple Watch app may also allow physicians to seek advice from doctors in other cities or states with a flick of the wrist. That possibility appealed to Wachter. But he also pointed out that doctors' messages won't automatically integrate into patients' electronic medical records, so some important information may get lost in the shuffle.
It will be some time before we're able to determine how useful the Apple Watch is to medical professionals. But Gross, of Doximity, said doctors are increasingly willing to give new technologies a shot: More than 70% of traffic comes from mobile devices.
"We're not trying to make the Apple Watch be an entire system in and of itself," he said. "We don't want you to run your life on the Apple Watch. It's just designed to do a few things more efficiently."