Yale School of Medicine students’ backpacks just got a whole lot lighter.

In an effort to save paper and make course materials more accessible, the Yale School of Medicine is providing all its students with an iPad 2 — Apple’s latest version of its tablet computer — for use in the classroom and clinical settings, medical school administrators announced in a press release Tuesday. Students will be able to download the entire medical curriculum on the device, as well as use it to read and handle confidential patient health information, said Michael Schwartz, assistant dean for curriculum at the medical school. The device will be theirs to keep even after graduation.

“It’s portable, it’s wireless, it’s responsive, it’s interactive and it will provide tremendous opportunities for our students to engage with the material,” said Richard Belitsky, deputy dean of education at the medical school.

The school is distributing about 520 iPads in total, Schwartz said. First-year students and third- through fifth-year students have already received theirs, and the rest will be given out by early next week.

Administrators first considered giving students iPads in order to reduce paper use, Schwartz said. The school spends about $100,000 each year to copy, collate and distribute course materials, he said, which students themselves find inconvenient.

Yale’s initial expenditure this year on the new iPads was about $600,000, but in future years money saved on printing expenses will cover the cost of the devices, Schwartz said.

The School of Medicine tested the use of iPads in the classroom with a pilot group of nine first-year students last spring. The group included some students who self-identified as not “technology-savvy,” but even they responded positively to the device, Schwartz said. For those who remain committed to pen and paper, printed course materials will be available for purchase.

Robert Stretch MED ’14, a student in the pilot group, said he much preferred reading course notes electronically to having them on paper.

“We get binder upon binder of notes, literally several feet of notes, and carrying them to the library or to class is just unrealistic,” Stretch said.

The pilot program allowed students to give feedback to administrators about which applications on the iPad were most useful to them, Schwartz said. As a result the school purchased iPads equipped with the application GoodReader, which students said was the best for annotating PDF files. The University also decided to give each student an Apple Bluetooth keyboard for use with the device, or the option to buy a keyboard online, since students found external keyboards essential for note-taking.

Administrators purchased 64-GB iPads that support 3G Internet access through AT&T. Students can choose to activate a 3G data plan at their own expense if they find the need to do so, though they will be able to access the Internet through Wi-Fi while on campus.

Besides being portable and allowing students to quickly download updates to lecture notes, iPads offer opportunities for interactive teaching, Belitsky said.

Robert Camp MED ’97, an associate research scientist in the Pathology Department, has adopted the iPad for use in small class discussions. Camp developed a program last year to send images to his students’ devices and ask them to identify a medical problem by circling it on the screen. He can have students’ annotated images sent back to him and use them to facilitate discussion, he said.

The iPad is also a more secure device than a laptop for handling Electronic Protected Health Information, Schwartz said. Students work with this confidential information when they do clinical training, and in the past campus staff needed to set up special security on students’ laptops for them to be able to handle it safely. By contrast, the iPad is encrypted and can be remotely locked or erased completely if it is lost or stolen.

“[The iPad] will be a good approach for students to access the health information of our patients,” School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said.

Yale is not the first school to introduce iPads for classroom use — the Stanford University School of Medicine gave the devices to incoming first-year and master’s students in fall 2010 — but it is making the leap before many of its peer institutions.

“We’re trying to be innovative in ways that enhance the learning of our students,” Belitsky said. “We don’t just want to be innovative; we want to make use of new technologies if they provide our students opportunities to learn more effectively.”

He added that iPads are expected to become increasingly used by doctors in hospitals and other clinical settings, which he said is yet another reason to familiarize medical students with them.

The iPad was first released in April 2010, and the iPad 2 came out in March 2011.

Clarification: September 16, 2011

The article “Med school gives iPads” incorrectly implied that Stanford was the first medical school to introduce iPads in its curriculum. The School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine introduced iPads a few weeks earlier in fall 2010.