By Bertha Coombs, CNBC Reporter

NEW YORK ( CNBC) -- There are two things Dr. Larry Nathanson can't work without when he's on duty in the emergency ward: his stethoscope and his iPad.

After nearly a year using the tablet, it has become an integral tool for treating patients.

"As I am walking from room to room, I know who I need to see next," he explained, scrolling through the virtual emergency room patient board on the iPad.

"I definitely feel lost when I don't have this on a shift," he said.
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As the director of emergency medicine at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Nathanson was among the first doctors at the hospital to buy an iPad the day it launched. He paid for it himself, but it has more than paid off in the time he saves not having to chase down records.

"Patients often have a lot of questions, and I am able to answer them immediately with the latest data in real time," Nathanson said. "I can sit there at the bedside and I can go over what's going on."

When it comes to treating surgical patients, being able to pull up diagrams and x-rays at their bedside has been a real game changer for B.I. Deaconess Dr. Henry Feldman.

"The number of times I've had patients say to me 'That's the first time I've understood my disease' -- I mean, it happens all the time to me. To me, that's validation as a doctor," he said.

Some also see doctors' embrace of the iPad as validation for Apple ( AAPL) as a new leader in the health-care enterprise market, while competitors like Research in Motion ( RIMM) are just beginning to roll out their tablets.

Analysts at Chilmark Research estimate 22 percent of doctors in the U.S. were using iPads by the end of 2010. In February, four out of five doctors surveyed by health marketing company Aptilon said they planned to buy an iPad this year.

The strength of doctors' iPad adoption has caught the health care IT industry by surprise.

"It's created quite a disruption for the health care IT vendors," Chilmark health-care IT analyst John Moore said. "It's very challenging as to how to prioritize this."

It comes at a time when the industry has been focused on rolling out updated electronic health record systems that will help hospitals and doctors meet deadlines for achieving federal health care technology standards known as "meaningful use."

Yet, in many ways, that's what may be helping to drive the intensity of doctor demand for the iPad.

The Perfect Storm

The government authorized up to $30 billion in reimbursements for qualifying health care IT systems as part of the 2009 stimulus act, in an effort to speed up adoption of electronic health records, known as EHRs.

The criteria for meaningful use in 2011 include capturing patient information in EHRs and inputting more of doctors' treatment orders and prescriptions electronically. The goal is to improve care by reducing errors and duplication, ultimately bringing down costs.

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