Follow Us

Like what you're reading?

Subscribe to receive periodic updates about new posts by email, or follow us via Twitter or RSS.

Please enter a valid e-mail address to subscribe.


You have subscribed.

Make Visits More Effective with Point-of-Care Education: 6 Apps in Action


If you’re like many doctors today, you may find yourself with more complex information to convey in shorter visits. Adding to the problem, patients are famously bad at retaining verbal information. Those who don’t understand or remember information are more likely to keep making the same mistakes, or not follow through on a treatment plan. Thus, you may wind up explaining the same things over and over to the same patients during office visits.

Luckily, there’s an app for that—several, in fact. Mobile apps provide a simple, low-cost opportunity for you to educate patients more efficiently and effectively at the point of care.

Apps Can Make Education—and Visits—More Effective

Dr. Travis Good is a physician, co-founder of and a blogger at HISTalk Connect who thinks apps can be “fantastic tools for education.” One of the advantages, he says, is that not only do apps provide a visual aid during an office visit, but patients with Internet access can often revisit that same information on their own devices outside of the office, as well.

“Providers use those tools to educate at the point of care, then actually email [patients] links to that same educational content so that they can view it on their own or potentially share it with caregivers or family,” says Dr. Good. “This is very, very powerful.”

Dr. Jeff Livingston of MacArthur OB/GYN summarizes why he likes the idea of educational apps at the point of care: “Patients want to understand what you’re talking about,” he says. “You’re always looking for quick, easy ways to educate people in a way they’ll understand.”

When you can get to that “lightbulb moment”—the dawning of understanding when you’re describing something to a patient—more quickly, your visits can operate more quickly as a result. And if you’re not having to explain the same things over and over, you may just find the whole care process running more efficiently. Using apps, says Dr. Good, “creates a better structure for having that conversation, which I think can improve the efficiency of the conversation.”

To get started using apps in your practice, Dr. Livingston suggests finding a few apps pertinent to your specialty, downloading them and playing around on your own time to find the ones you like best. “Patients are going to go online and look up health information,” he says. “Knowing that’s how patient behavior is going to go, take control of that and guide them in the right direction.”

Apps in Action at the Point of Care

Just how do patient education apps work? Let’s take a look at a few examples of available apps and how they might be used during a visit.

Pop-Q: Explaining Pelvic Organ Prolapse
Dr. Livingston is no stranger to patient education apps. In fact, his only complaint is that there aren’t more great apps available. “If it makes my life easier and the care I provide better, then I’ll do it,” says Dr. Livingston of app usage. One such app that fits that bill for Dr. Livingston’s practice is Pop-Q, a free app developed by Boston Scientific to educate patients about pelvic organ prolapse. Dr. Livingston pulls it up on his iPad during patient visits to help patients understand pelvic floor conditions.

Boston Scientific’s pelvic organ prolapse quantification (Pop-Q) app

The app can even be customized to each patient’s specific case. “Trying to explain pelvic organ prolapse is complicated,” says Dr. Livingston. “Being able to show [patients] an illustration that’s unique to them, individualized to their specific need—you can just see it in a patient’s face when the lightbulb goes off and they understand, ‘Oh, okay, I get it.’”

Birth Control—The Game: Warning Patients about Accidental Pregnancy
Dr. Livingston has also used an app called Birth Control—The Game to discuss pregnancy with teenage patients. Another free app, the game features an egg at the bottom of the screen with sperm falling from the top. The user must move the phone or tablet back and forth to make the sperm change directions, with the goal of avoiding the egg.

Though Dr. Livingston thought of the app as more of a light-hearted icebreaker, he says it also helped him drive home an important educational point: that it only takes one sperm connecting with one egg for pregnancy to occur. And with their doctor introducing the concept through an iPhone game, it’s an educational experience many of his teenage patients are likely to remember.

3D Brain: Detailing Neurological Conditions or Effects
The 3D Brain was originally created as an educational tool for high school and lower college students and their teachers. But its developers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center soon discovered it was also being used by medical professionals to educate patients about the locations and functions of certain structures in the brain. The 3D Brain can be rotated—and structures within the brain can be isolated—simply with the touch of a tablet or smartphone screen.

The 3D Brain was produced by the DNA Learning Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for the Genes to Cognition Online website,, © 2013.

Dr. Amy Nisselle, Multimedia and Evaluation Manager of the DNA Learning Center, explains that when it comes to the brain, people have a hard time connecting the dots without getting overwhelmed. The 3D Brain can help patients make those connections more easily. “If you can visualize what’s going on, you can keep going on that path without cognitive overload,” she says. “It helps people understand something that is not intuitive, that you can’t see.”

Dr. Nisselle explains that the 3D Brain is particularly valuable for education because it harnesses the power of different learning styles in one application. In addition to presenting visual information, the 3D Brain can also be manipulated by touch (great for tactile learners), and it contains a great deal of supplementary reading material to accompany the imagery. And all of this is available to patients outside the office on their own devices, too.

VisualDX: Confirming and Explaining Dermatological Cases
One app Dr. Good mentions is VisualDX, a free app which started as a dermatology clinical decision support tool. Though VisualDX tools are now used in a variety of other specialties as well, the newer patient education app lends itself especially well to the visual nature of dermatology.

Show patients images of skin abnormalities or dermatological conditions to help confirm your diagnosis. You can also show images of disease progression and tap into associated educational materials. And you can easily share that information with patients via email (or printing).

Heart Decide: Outlining Heart Conditions and Procedures
Dr. Good also turned me on to Orca Health, a company that creates a number of patient education apps in partnership with Harvard Medical School. One such app is Heart Decide, a free app which lets you “prescribe” educational content to patients. I had a chance to catch up with Orca Health founder and CEO Matt Berry to learn more.

Orca Health and Harvard Medical School’s Heart Decide patient education app

Heart Decide, says Berry, was “born out of frustration”—frustration with existing educational tools like models and handouts and their demonstrably poor results. “We built the app using multisensory tools where you can touch and interact with the heart, and understand from a visual perspective exactly what’s going on with a particular condition,” explains Berry. “And then that content—symptoms, conditions and recommendations, along with videos and illustrations—can be prescribed to the patient via email.”

modalityBODY: Showing and Describing Venous Structures
You’re probably familiar with Epocrates and its physician reference and diagnostic tools and apps, but you may not be aware of its patient education apps. modalityBODY is one such free app that offers a basic set of reference materials, with a broader set of materials available for purchase. Educational materials include images and descriptions; you can also upload your own clinical images and annotate them within the app.

An image from the Thieme Atlas of Anatomy in modalityBODY by Modality, an Epocrates company

For example, you could pull up the app on an iPad during a visit to show a patient screens from the Atlas of Anatomy, such as the veins of the head and neck as in the image above. You can drop “pins” onto images to mark specific locations or structures of interest. You could even upload a scan of the patient’s own condition, for comparison with a “normal” view or to help explain an abnormality.

Are you using any educational apps in your practice? If so, tell us about your experience in the comments section below.

Share this post:  
Melissa McCormack

About the Author

Melissa McCormack is the Managing Editor for the The Profitable Practice. She conducts primary research on the challenges and benefits of implementing healthcare IT solutions. Her work has been cited in many notable publications, including Quartz, InformationWeek, Electronics Weekly, and

Connect with Melissa McCormack via: 
Email  | Google+