About 80% of all US physicians will be using smart phones by 2012, and not just for drug reference or clinical information. An explosion of new healthcare professional-facing apps – over 1,500 in Apple’s app store alone – will expand mobile device usage to include patient care and administrative functions, according to Manhattan Research survey.

Creating smart phone apps for physicians makes a lot of sense, considering that docs have been using PDAs, with applications, for a long time, said  Jeannette Kocsis, SVP, digital marketing, at Harte-Hanks Direct. The mobile-optimized web is also important, said Kocsis, particularly because updates are managed by the website host, as opposed to a physician having to update an application.

Marketers looking to use medical reference apps to reach doctors are mostly confined to sponsorship, which usually provides a dedicated space within the app for a direct message to the doctor, said Kocsis, adding that current apps aren’t really built for banners.

In disease state categories, however, there is a growing opportunity to create brand-specific content – things like dosage calculators that apply only to a specific drug – that can be useful to marketers, said Kocsis.

Half of the apps available in the Apple app store’s medical category are for medical reference, 9.3% of the apps are calculators, 7% of the apps are for EMR and operations, 3.4% are for prenatal and infant care, and 3% are for chronic disease management, including diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol and asthma management, according to a quantitative study on mobile health apps conducted by MobiHealthNews. Emergency information, medication adherence and CME apps make up a combined 4% of the total medical apps (roughly 24% of the apps in the medical category were labeled “other” or “miscatagorized”).

While Apple’s app store is by far the biggest – Google’s Android Market, the second largest store, has only 500 health-related apps compared with Apple’s 5,000 – there is still some debate over which smart phone is used most by doctors. A recent SDI survey found that iPhones were used most among docs using smart phones to access medical information. Although BlackBerry’s App World only lists about 140 health-related apps, according to the MobiHealthNews survey, the company takes a different approach to verticals in the healthcare space, offering an enterprise server to its healthcare customers, the report said.

“Handheld devices are becoming more and more useful to physicians, partly because of the boom in physician-oriented apps and portable content,” said Monique Levy, senior director of research at Manhattan Research, in a statement. In an email, Levy said increased administrative functionality for docs could include tasks related to practice management systems, scheduling appointments and emailing patients.