Physicians Praise Handheld Computers

In a special issue of BMJ, physicians encourage openness to new technologies.

Many physicians would never want to part with their handheld computers, though they report very different reasons for their enthusiasm. Thats according to an article in last months BMJ, a peer-reviewed periodical for physicians. However, the researchers also found that many doctors are uncomfortable with a new technology and fear it may blunt their skills or encourage overdependence.

Other articles in the same issue include commentary that handheld devices might make useful "stepping stones" for getting physicians acclimated to new technologies and a commentary by a young doctor extolling the convenience of handheld devices during medical rounds, particularly the search functions to find crucial information about drugs or individual patients. The commentary also describes software programs physicians can use on handheld devices.

The research paper is based on a series of focus groups of 54 U.S. generalists and internists. Participation was voluntary but included professionals who used handheld devices all the time, who used them only in certain "niche" settings, and who never used them. According to the authors, about a quarter of physicians currently use mobile devices; by 2005, that figure should be up to one half. There was a general consensus among the group of physicians that handheld devices and other technologies are becoming ubiquitous in health care, a trend some attributed to younger doctors entering the field with much higher proficiency in using computers. Common uses for handheld devices reported in the paper include the following:

  • Point of care assistance—drug information, clinical guidelines, decision aids, patient education
  • Patient information—patient tracking, clinical results
  • Administrative functions—electronic prescribing, coding, tracking schedules
  • Research activities—data collection, participant education
  • Medical education—lecture notes, presentations, photographs and diagrams

Common problems with the devices include bulk (i.e. not fitting in a shirt pocket), memory size and battery life. Other problems mentioned: entering, syncing and receiving data simply takes too much time; using the devices is awkward because of their tiny screens and buttons; and figuring out how to use the technology is a waste of time. In addition, some were concerned about becoming too dependent on the device, only to lose it or have to deal with a crash.

Physicians are more likely to adopt handheld devices in settings where computer use is more prevalent and that have established IT support. The authors concluded that health care organizations could encourage staff to use handheld devices by providing training as well as ongoing user support (such as a help desk). Other ways suggested to promote use included databases formatted for the screens and interfaces of handheld devices and options to access point-of-care information from a variety of locations.


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