Why are doctors using PDAs?


Peter Hahn, resident at Cornell Medical Center proudly displaying the Palm Pilot he uses as a drug database.
Peter Hahn, resident at Cornell Medical Center proudly displaying the Palm Pilot he uses as a drug database.
Ted Thai/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Personal digital assistants, or PDAs, and other similar electronic devices have been around only since the mid-1990s -- though in a short span of time they've managed to make a big impact on our society and culture. It's difficult to walk down the street and not see someone talking on a cell phone or a businessperson organizing a digital calendar. With cell phones, PDAs and smartphones, you can now make and receive calls, send e-mails and text messages and access the Internet. Of course, they're not used simply for business purposes -- you can also take and store digital pictures, listen to MP3s, watch videos and play games to pass the time.

Like the other devices mentioned above, the PDA has had several ups and downs over the years. The first PDA to capture the public's attention and make an impact on businesses was the Palm Pilot 1000, which made its debut in 1996 [source: PC World]. But by 2004, sale in PDA devices dipped significantly as users found sophisticated cell phones and smartphones more attractive -- the newer, shinier, slimmer gadgets could do everything a PDA could do and lots more.

PDA developers picked up on this trend, however, and by 2005 many had introduced more advanced devices with wireless networking and cell phone capabilities. The continually popular BlackBerry, for example, made big strides in sales around this time, with shipments for the device rising 76 percent that year [source: PC World].

One area of business in which PDA use has actually seen a steady increase is the health care profession. To some of us this might seem strange. When we think of things a doctor carries around, we usually think of clipboards and stethoscopes, not handheld PDAs. Why would doctors, nurses and pharmacists use PDAs?

To find out how more health care associations are adapting to changes in technology, read the next page.

PDA Use in Health Care

PDAs give health care professionals access to loads of medical information on the spot.
PDAs give health care professionals access to loads of medical information on the spot.
Jose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images

It's important to remember that personal digital assistants are essentially like tiny, handheld laptop computers. Although they typically don't have as much memory as computers, they're powered by microprocessors and run on an operating system, and advanced PDAs run very close to laptop capability. Despite the perceived lack of memory available, PDAs can hold anywhere from 16 to 128 MB of data on their systems. On top of this, owners with newer models have the option to add even more memory with the help of expansion cards, which can add as much as 512 MB of memory. Even though you probably can't put your entire iTunes library onto a PDA, you can use one to store a lot of smaller files like PDFs, which contain a wealth of information.

Doctors, nurses and most professional health care workers have found this fact extremely beneficial in their practice, and hospitals, doctor's offices and pharmacies have quickly adapted to the benefits of PDA technology over the past decade. By 2003, for instance, more than 50 percent of doctors were using handheld computers in some form during their daily activities, while an even larger percentage of residents and students used them and showed proficiency [source: Palm Infocenter].

Health care providers rely on a staggering amount of information to help patients. Doctors use reference material from books or print off data from larger computers to ensure accuracy and provide diagnosis, while pharmacists do the same to look up drug information. Seeking out this type of information takes time and wastes resources if it involves printing, and because of the constant need to update, books can become outdated in a matter of weeks when new discoveries are made.

If doctors and nurses use PDAs, however, they can carry with them large tomes of medical reference which they can access on the spot. This allows them to make quicker decisions regarding diagnoses and medicine prescriptions, resulting in more time spent on caring for the patient directly.

In terms of communication and response time, PDAs also have the advantage over pagers, according to a study performed on a team of surgeons at St. Mary's Hospital in Paddington, England [source: BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making]. Whereas using a pager requires a doctor to receive a page, locate a free phone and call back the number displayed on the pager, newer PDAs and smartphones allow doctors to communicate directly.

For lots more information about communications technology and how it affects our daily lives, see the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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