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Remote Tools of the Trade

May 1, 2006
by Frank Jossi
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Tablet PCs and PDAs help doctors and nurses improve care by bringing IT to the bedside.

At Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, mobile carts carrying Motion Computing (Austin, Texas) tablet PCs allow nurses and doctors to input medical data and update electronic medical records without ever leaving a patient's room.

At Partners Healthcare in the Boston area, a hospital and two multi-specialty clinics have introduced more than 100 Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Fujitsu PC tablets which provide physicians and nurses various electronic forms where they can enter patient information and take notes.

Both hospital systems have made significant investments in tablet PC technology that, combined with wireless technology, allows employees and physicians mobility in healthcare settings and a full computer screen for collecting, absorbing and inputting patient information. In the rapidly growing mobile computing arena, tablet PCs have joined personal digital assistants (PDAs) as one of the two top go-to devices for physicians on the move.

Because they've been on the market longer than other mobile devices, PDAs are still the mobile device of choice for physicians, says Jocelyn Young, research director of Datamonitor PLC in New York.

A study Datamonitor conducted showed doctors favor PDAs, followed by computer carts (often with tablet PCs or laptops), smart phones and iPods. In sharp contrast, a survey from the Boston-based Medical Records Institute in 2005 showed a slightly different scenario, with PDAs and tablet PCs essentially tied in terms of physician usage.

The big difference comes in how physicians employ them.Gerard burns, m.d.

In the field

Physicians use PDAs "for reading and writing e-mail, for writing and submitting prescriptions, for looking at a patient's medical record and for reading journal articles or accessing data related to continuing education," says Young. "Tablet PCs more meet the needs of physicians on the job because of their screen size and the advanced solutions they provide. They allow doctors to look at X-rays and closely consult patients' medical records."

Still, plenty of hospitals continue to see PDAs as instrumental in their operations, says Linda Rebrovick, vice president for Dell Inc.'s Health Care Business in Round Rock, Texas. She points to a healthcare client in West Virginia that uses Dell Axim PDAs, which allows physicians to view medication lists and radiology results.

Gerard Burns, M.D., chief medical information officer at Hackensack University Medical Center, says the tablet PCs have saved physicians an enormous amount of time. Nurses no longer have to write down what drugs they gave to patients on a piece of paper and then transfer them to a medical record back at their nursing stations, nor do doctors have to scramble to a workstation to input data or pull up an electronic record when treating patients.

Cows in the hospital

With a computer on wheels, or "cow," as Burns calls it, doctors can bring the tablet PC to patients' bedsides and share an X-ray or CAT screen showing them a problem — a blocked artery, for example. "Patients really respond to the visual, they feel more involved in the process," he says.

Qi Li, M.D., corporate manager at Partners Healthcare, says the pen-based Fujitsu tablet PCs are "less intrusive" than laptops. "It feels more natural for physicians than a laptop," he says. Other advantages include pen-based navigation (preferred over a notebook/mouse combination) and the ability to take hand-written notes, Li says. The tablet PCs have been employed by physicians at Partners' specialty clinics for patient care and by administrators at its hospitals for note taking and accessing clinical data, he adds.

Though a supporter of tablet PCs, Li suggests the technology needs more sophisticated software. "Even though tablet PC technology has finally reached a usable state with a wireless infrastructure and has become reliable in a clinic setting, there is no killer application that has been customized for pen input," he says. "This will be a major barrier in driving tablet PC adoption."

Author Information:

Frank Jossi is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.