Apple Inc.'s 2007 unveiling of the iPhone changed the way people use their cell phones. For internist Thomas Giannulli, it signaled the chance to rid doctors of reams of paperwork and end his decade of hard luck in business.
A self-described "obsessive" computer programmer, Giannulli had spent years writing programs that physicians could use on hand-held devices. He envisioned the day when doctors would no longer tote around fraying patient files.
But there was a problem: The devices never stuck around. Giannulli, 43, saw successive programs he wrote for Windows CE and Apple's Newton PDAs fade from use as the devices fell out of fashion.
The iPhone, though, looked like it had staying power. As soon as Giannulli saw the first screenshots of the smart phone, he called up a group of programmers with whom he often kicked around ideas.
"The second it was announced, we started to figure out how to build a product for that," he said. "This thing was going to be hot."
Giannulli's goal came to fruition in mid-July when his tiny Westlake Village company, Caretools Inc., launched iChart, the first clinical record application for the iPhone. Available for download from Apple's online App Store, iChart allows a doctor to write and track prescriptions, handle billing and take notes with a few taps of the thumb.
About 100 doctors from as far away as Australia and Italy have downloaded iChart. Revenue has been modest, Giannulli admits, especially after Apple takes its 30 percent cut from the $140 he charges per download. (Users also have to pay a $99 annual fee for ongoing maintenance, and in the future will be charged for downloadable upgrades.)
If iChart takes off, Giannulli hopes to put his job as a doctor on hold and run the company full time. Currently, he still practices at his clinic twice a week in addition to writing computer programs in his spare time and overseeing four part-time employees.
But with iChart, Giannulli hopes he is on the cusp of a huge untapped market. To him, it makes perfect sense that physicians looking for a portable, Internet-ready, easy-to-use device would gravitate to Apple's latest product.
Others aren't as sure. David A. Collins, director for health care information systems at the non-profit Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, said he has yet to hear significant buzz among doctors around the iPhone, which is significantly smaller than some other hand-held electronic medical record devices on the market.
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