"It was very tense," recalled Corby, an emergency room physician at Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital in Hollister, Calif.. "If you can't terminate a seizure within an hour or two, the person can sustain brain damage and it can ultimately be fatal."
While medical reference information has long been available through the Internet on computers, physicians like Corby say the ability to instantly access data in any situation and through one-touch technology is changing the way they practice medicine. Asked to choose between having a stethoscope or a smartphone, some doctors say they would choose the latter.
"You've got a whole medical library right in the palm of your hand," said Meredith Ressi with Manhattan Research, a health-care market research firm that studies doctors' use of technology. "It's really transformative."
Doctors no longer have to spend time thumbing through fat manuals stuffed in lab coats - or rely on memory in the heat of emergencies. The ability to easily exchange photos - and engage in video chats - with colleagues using a smartphone is adding a new dimension to consultations.
Eventually, doctors may be able to access electronic patient records on their pocket devices, experts say. Already emergency rooms and other hospital areas are being equipped with iPads so medical staff can quickly get critical information. The Stanford Medical School plans to provide all first-year medical and Master of Medicine students with an iPad this fall.
Still, the sudden plethora of medical apps - there are hundreds on the market and more coming virtually every day - has caused government officials to consider whether new regulations are needed to ensure accurate information is being disseminated digitally. "When it comes to reference medical apps, you really should only trust the ones from the companies that have been in the ecosystem for a while," said Iltifat Husain, founder of www.imedicalapps.com, a review site.
Physicians are three times more likely to use smartphones than the general adult population in the United States, Ressi said. More than 70 percent of doctors in the United States now use advanced phones or personal digital assistants, and of those 80 percent say the devices are essential to their work, she said.
Medical professionals had viewed such technology as more foe than friend because it was clunky and complicated to use, said Margaret Laws, an executive at the California HealthCare Foundation in Oakland. But when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, and then offered the software tools for developers to customize applications for the new platform a year later, it was an "ah-ha" moment in medicine because the new device and software were easy to use, Laws said. Makers of other smartphones, from BlackBerry to Android devices, are now providing similar intuitive technology.
"We want the data right at our fingertips," said Dr. Lars Grimm, who is completing his residency at Duke University Medical Center.
Grimm recently relied on information gleaned from his iPhone to treat an executive suffering from extreme diarrhea and vomiting after being exposed to a bacterial toxin during a business trip to India. The doctor had read a medical alert about antibiotic-resistant bacteria in India.
So he changed the standard antibiotic prescription for the man and immediately began treating him. Two days later, the patient walked out of the hospital.
Smartphone medicine, though, has triggered some concerns.
Dr. James Chu, a Monterey, Calif., endocrinologist, said using a smartphone for a doctor's professional and personal life means getting deluged with data, such as routine lab reports, day and night. "It's almost like a leash tying you to work 24-7," he said. "There are advantages (to smartphone medicine), but I haven't needed one."
Other experts caution that the exchange of medical cases between doctors through smartphones could place a patient's privacy at risk.