Tablet PCs in pharmacy practice – The technology

Today we continue our series on tablet PCs in pharmacy practice by looking at available technology. Enjoy the second part in the four part series.

Mobile PC options for pharmacists
New technology is providing unparalleled opportunity for pharmacists desiring mobile computing solutions. Mobile phone platforms such as the iPhone are offering ever increasing access to patient information, while Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs) remain a viable alternative as a highly mobile computing solution with hardware configurations and software rivaling some desktop PCs. UMPCs offer an attractive alternative to PDAs and mobile phones, but their limited screen size may ultimately make them unsuitable for pharmacist use. I could find no literature evaluating the use of UMPCs in healthcare.

Other options include:

Laptop computers (laptops) – Laptops provide many desirable qualities such as large monitors, keyboards, a built-in pointing device (mouse, a touchpad, also known as a trackpad, and/or a pointing stick), ample processing power and memory. The obvious negative to a laptop is their awkward shape making them difficult to hold while accessing patient information. Their portability is designed around access to a surface on which to work. Without sufficient real estate to place the laptop, their use as a mobile platform is significantly reduced.

Netbooks – Primarily designed for web browsing and e-mailing, netbooks are popular for accessing the internet and for remote access to web-based applications. Netbooks are similar to laptops in almost every way with one major exception; they are typically smaller with screen sizes in the 8 to 10 inch range. Newer netbooks like the Eee PC T91 even offer a convertible tablet pc form factor and touch screen interface. While these devices offer an attractively low price and are a valid alternative to laptops, their limited screen size and limited processing power remain a question mark.

Tablet PCs (tablets) – Tablet PCs are portable computers similar to laptops in many ways. They offer large color displays, processing power similar if not identical to that of a laptop, large amounts of storage and are much smaller and lighter than a desktop PC. The difference between a tablet and a laptop is in the tablet’s unique form factor and pen driven interface similar to that of a PDA or mobile phone.

Tablet PCs can be grouped into two basic categories: slate and convertible. The slate tablet has no attached keyboard or mouse and closely resembles a paper notebook or clipboard. Data entry is performed via a tablet pen or voice, although a keyboard and mouse can be attached via a variety of ports. Slate tablets are often smaller, thinner and lighter than convertible tablet models. Examples of slate tablets include the LE1700 and Motion C5 and F5 from Motion Computing and the Sahara Slate i400 series by TabletKiosk.

Convertible tablets closely resemble a laptop with attached keyboard and navigation device. The lid may be rotated and folded down over the keyboard creating a form factor similar to a slate tablet. The convertible tablet PC may also be used as a traditional laptop with the lid in the upright position. The convertible tablet offers several advantages over the slate with its attached keyboard and navigation device providing flexible data entry.  However, the addition of the keyboard and navigation device adds bulk to the device often making them heavier than the slate tablet. Anecdotally convertible tablets appear to be more popular than their slate counterparts. Convertible tablet PC examples include the Dell Latitude XT by Dell Computing and the ThinkPad X200 Tablet offered by Lenovo.

Common to both the slate and convertible tablets is the use of digitizing tablet technology (digital inking). Digital inking is made available through the use of a digitizer overlain on an LCD screen that creates an electromagnetic field. The motion of the digital pen on the screen is recorded via this field as a series of data points that are ultimately displayed and stored as pen strokes. The user sees visual confirmation of this on the screen as writing, allowing users to input data via the digital pen provided with the tablet. The end result is similar in look and feel to writing with traditional pen and paper. The digitized handwriting can be converted to standard text via handwriting recognition software or as sketches, drawings or notes making paper notes nearly obsolete. Annotating electronic documents such as those in the portable document format (PDF) is also possible. Handwriting recognition can be challenging, but practiced use can result in remarkable speed and accuracy during data entry.

The digital pen also acts as a navigation device similar to the stylus on a PDA or a mouse on a traditional desktop PC. The pens included with tablet PCs often have programmable buttons that are similar to the buttons on a typical desktop PC mouse. Applications may be accessed by tapping the pen on the screen, simulating a mouse click.

Tablet PCs are equipped with hardware configurations similar to that of desktop PCs making them capable of running hospital systems and office suite programs, such as Microsoft Office. The benefit of this is seen with user comfort and familiarity, creating less of a learning curve to the new device. They offer an ideal solution for the mobile pharmacist.

A great source of information for tablet PCs is TabletPCReview.com. They cover the latest trends in tablet PC use and manufacturing.

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