Using iPads in Patient Education: Realities and Lessons from the Front Lines of Healthcare

HealthEd Academy, the sponsor of the free online learning community, SurroundHealth, recently published Healthcare Extender Lens: Educational Technology in Healthcare. Available to download at, the report revealed current barriers to using technology but also highlighted many benefits and key opportunities for growth. While only 15% of survey respondents used tablets, such as the iPad, during patient interactions, 59% of respondents wished they could use them with their patients.

Leah Scaramuzzo

Sarah Christensen

SurroundHealth sat down with two cancer patient educators who have already started to experiment with iPads in their cancer patient education resource centers:

  • Leah Scaramuzzo, MSN, RN-BC, AOCN, Associate Director of Nursing and Patient Education at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey started using iPads because she wanted to provide patients with cutting-edge opportunities to learn about their diagnoses and treatment.
  • Sarah A. Christensen, MA, Manager, Cancer Education Program at Mayo Clinic started using iPads to give patients easier access to the wide range of multimedia patient education available from Mayo.

What’s available on your iPads?

Leah:  We researched, reviewed and curated apps to place on the iPads including:

We also downloaded several games for people to play. Patients can then sign out the iPads to use during their infusion treatments at the Institute.

Sarah:  I wanted to use the iPad to deliver the education however the patient wanted.  I thought the iPad with small screen would be private and allow learning in multiple ways – patients could read a blog, watch a video, or listen to a podcast. Or, if people wanted more personal interaction, our  nurse educators could use the iPads with them.  At our Cancer Education  Center, we always start with a conversation to assess the person’s educational needs.  Then we may suggest they use our iPads to learn some of the information they are interested in.

iPads became a way to share curated Top Picks linking 
patients to reliable and relevant apps and information.

 What were the practical realities and lessons learned?

Timing, not the technology, is critical to effective patient education.

Leah:  We were loaning the iPads to patients to use during their treatments.  And, we discovered patients primarily used the iPads for diversional activities – surfing the web, posting status on Facebook, or playing games  — to help take their minds off of treatment.  By the time they sit in the infusion chair for Day 1 of treatment, patients are overloaded with information and feeling anxious.  For them, this wasn’t the time for learning about their cancer or treatment. I wish we could give an iPad to patients to use at home when they are dealing with their diagnoses or having to make decisions about treatment.  It’s exactly at these points when patients most need guidance on what to learn and where to go online for accurate, practical information.

Sarah:  I agree.  For patients, it would be so helpful to give them streamlined learning to access at home.  I  know that iPad apps are being used very successfully at Mayo Clinic with heart surgery patients.  The iPad app gets patients and their care partners actively involved in learning and discharge planning.

Technology cannot replace human interaction and dialog

Sarah: What patients often want is individualized attention and interaction with our nurse educators when they are dealing with a  cancer diagnosis.  When they step through the doors of our Cancer Education  Center, they are coming in to talk to a person  and to get reassurance, not to be handed a device to use for self-guided learning.  To them, that’s what they are already doing at home.

Staff members need help adopting the technology and integrating it into their work flow.

Leah:  For the nurses who are seeing so many patients throughout the day, we needed to take into account logistics and timing. Our iPads had videos about clinical trials on them which made it easy for our research nurses to share with patients.  However, first, the nurses had to remember to pick up the iPads prior to their patient conversations.    Even more than this, we needed to provide education to the healthcare providers on HOW to use the technology

Sarah:  Part of using technology is making sure the educators are aware of all the multimedia resources that are available  to share with patients.  Often, patients don’t directly ask for specific resources.  It’s up to the staff  to assess the patient’s needs and then to be aware of the resources available to help meet those needs.

Leah: Yes, you definitely need to have a “cheerleader” to help get the staff using the technology.

 Walk in patients shoes. Always test the technology as if you are the patient.

Sarah:  When we first started, we accessed  the Mayo multimedia resources on the iPad using our employee accounts.  We had several IT issues when we first handed the iPads to patients because we did not first test the iPads with a patient guest account.  We learned a huge  lesson!

Simpler may be better. Technology may be more widely used by patients if the technology is really a natural extension to a format patients are already familiar with.

Leah:  Our cancer resource center also has Nooks and Play Aways.  What we have found is patients use these devices more.  People associate the Nook with a Book and that’s what the device is used for – reading.

Going forward I wish technology developers would have 
a conversation with educators. It’s nice to have all of 
these multitasks that you can do on a device. But, if 
patients are going to use the device for a specific type 
of learning, developers really need to think about 
that first. -- Leah

Using iPads can be the gateway to discovering the richness of social media for patient education

Sarah: As we pulled Mayo Clinic resources to place on the iPads, it opened our eyes to the wealth of social media resources available across the departments in Mayo.  For our Cancer Education  Center, this energized our staff and we started exploring social media in a new way.  We now have an e-newsletter and blog “Living with Cancer” that has over 60,000 subscribers.  We started a FaceBook page and are actively working with our Social Media department on using Twitter at outreach events.  We realized social media expands your thinking and reach. Mayo Clinic is the only NCI-designated cancer center with 3 sites across the nation.  By tapping into social media, we are now no longer limited by our geography.  Social media has really supported our 3-site presence.

We are not using iPads as I had anticipated but I really 
like where they have gotten us. -- Sarah

To learn more about how educational technology is being used by healthcare extenders, download the free report, infographic and PowerPoint slides at


About Susan Collins, MS, CHES, RD, SurroundHealth Blogger

I am Community Leader for SurroundHealth (, a social network where health professionals from different backgrounds come together to learn from one another's expertise and to share knowledge and resources. We share a passion for improving the health and well-being of communities and individuals. I am also a registered dietitian and certified health education specialist.
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5 Responses to Using iPads in Patient Education: Realities and Lessons from the Front Lines of Healthcare

  1. Pingback: Using iPads in Patient Education: Realities and Lessons from the Front Lines of Healthcare | Digital Health Journal

  2. Joe Hunt says:

    Interesting article. We have found that patients are often not ready to be educated when the physicians are ready to teach. We created the Incendant 360 degree patient education suite to enable healthcare providers to share the needed information in concise videos on a tablet, but we also send a followup email to the patient with links to view the videos over the web as well.

    -Joe Hunt
    CTO/COO Incendant

  3. Pingback: Education Technology and Healthcare | SurroundHealth Blog

  4. Pingback: You Imagine | Exploring Science through Art

  5. Pingback: You Imagine: Exploring Medical Apps | Medimagery | The Body Cathedral

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