Published: 03/11/2005 Volume 115 No. 5980 Page 3

Many healthcare workers are mobile.

Some visit patients at home, some treat patients in multiple facilities, and others are not so much road warriors as corridor warriors, accessing patient records while moving around a hospital. Mobile devices such as personal digital assistants and mobile phones offer many opportunities to these workers.

PDAs are popular in healthcare applications, providing a pocketsized device with a screen size between that of a PC and a phone.

Typically, they have faster processors than mobile phones, are able to run sophisticated applications and provide useful features such as touch screens and speech recognition.

This means they can be used for sophisticated interactions such as digitising signatures to confirm prescriptions. Unlike PCs, PDAs have no boot-up delay. They are available with a wide variety of wireless interfaces including 802.11, cellular and Bluetooth.

There are two types of PDAs:

consumer PDAs are relatively cheap but, as consumer devices, are not very rugged. They are not designed for a long life so are best for whitecollar applications where they will achieve return on investment in under 24 months. They are neither water nor dust proof and are difficult to sterilise.

Tougher PDAs are industrialised versions of consumer models.

Although costing more than their consumer equivalents, they can be shock, dust and water resistant and can be scrubbed and disinfected so are much more suitable for frontline medical applications.

These PDAs are less elegant and require a larger pocket to carry them.

However, this can make them less likely to be stolen. Manufacturers also support such devices for several years, permitting longer return on investment periods.

Functionally, smartphones are similar to PDAs but are designed as one-handed devices, chiefly for voice calls. Increasing numbers also have simple keyboards and are able to support e-mail and data access/ collection applications.

They tend to be smaller and lighter than PDAs with a longer battery life but a smaller screen so are better suited to text interactions.

Smartphone prices are falling, so they will become more numerous, constituting around a third of all handsets sold in 2008.

Smartphones are consumer devices. They are not rugged or water resistant so cannot be sterilised, and have a lifespan of 18 to 24 months.

They therefore tend to be more suitable for white-collar applications.

Healthcare organisations should explore smartphones. A pocket-sized device with data processing capability can provide ways to deliver information to corridor warriors as well as travelling workers.

The standard mobile phone is primarily a voice and messaging device, although the growth of phones supporting web browsing and Java offers the chance to deliver simple applications to a wide range of users at low cost.

The main challenge is the diversity of the market; several hundred different models will co-exist, making support and testing a nightmare.

However, even lowest common denominator communications such as voice and SMS (text messaging) which work on all mobile phones can be useful. Examples include appointment reminders and staff scheduling systems.

Basic mobiles are becoming very cheap, by 2008 a voice-only mobile phone will cost under£25. This opens up interesting possibilities, such as giving them away to patients to monitor treatment programmes or provide medical advice.

Digital pens are still relatively uncommon, but can be a useful data capture device. A digital pen records what you write and can be used in conjunction with smart forms to capture data digitally while preserving a traditional written record. They are simple to use and can communicate via a Bluetooth link to a mobile phone to transmit data from a completed form.

These small personal devices will, over time, have increased functionality and cost less. It is time to explore how you can use them to deliver information to health workers in new ways. .

Nick Jones is a vice-president at technology analysts Gartner.