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Are we being tempted by toys?

A new occasional IT questions and answers series starts with a query from one GP about the value of personal digital assistants

A new occasional IT questions and answers series starts with a query from one GP about the value of personal digital assistants

Q We are wondering whether it would be useful for partners to have a handheld personal digital assistant (PDA) or portable mini-personal computer each, or whether we are being tempted by 'toys'. How useful and practicable would these gadgets be for downloading patients' records for visits? And generally speaking, would a PDA help us to work more efficiently in the practice? If so, which model would you recommend?

A With the increasing use of scanning for letters and results, I find a PDA to be a very useful tool on visits.

We do ask our staff to do a paper printout, but there is a limit to what these can provide without considerable print length. There are also unexpected visits to do once you are out and about.

The PDA is put into its cradle every morning at the practice and uploads the entire patient database on to an encrypted memory card in the unit. Selected sets of records (for patients due to be visited) can also have all scanned documents downloaded.

This process takes about 30 minutes and uploads every entry made, including the previous day's, on all 10,000 patients.

It takes about a minute at the patient's house to open the software and the specific record required, when all lab results, X-ray, drugs and clinical entries are visible. You can also enter data on to the unit which updates to the main system next time the unit is 'synched' but I find that too laborious and jot down clinical findings on the printout for typing in on my return.

I have used an IPAQ 2210 in the past, but now I use a Fujitsu Loox 720 (twice the memory and a lovely VGA screen). I believe you have to use a Windows Mobile machine, not a Palm using the Symbian software.

The machine clips on to my belt and is also used as a mobile information resource of Word documents, spreadsheets, contacts database, diary and GPS system. We use the Inchware software products for the clinical software whose products are reliable, user friendly, securely encrypted and whose support is also exemplary. They are compatible with all major GP systems.

The PDA also allows access to patients' records at home and elsewhere, which can be useful.

I wouldn't be without my PDA, though some of my other partners have had the opportunity to use the system and have given up. Not surprisingly I think PDAs appeal more to doctors who like IT. I now feel rather naked if for some reason I've not brought the PDA and have to do a home visit blind.

Dr Simon Clay is a GP in Birmingham

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