Is a tablet right for you?

October 7, 2005

These portable PCs are getting lighter, faster, and better, but they aren't an IT cure-all.

Before physicians can truly embrace electronic health records, they need the right hardware in the exam room so that the software is easy to use.

Tablet computers, touted as an all-around hardware solution, are smaller than a traditional notebook computer, yet are able to run the same applications that a notebook does. They mimic a paper chart not only in size but in ease of use. The Microsoft Tablet PC operating system-used by most tablet manufacturers-allows you to write on the screen. Your scrawl is captured as "digital ink" and can be saved or converted to typewritten text. You also can check off boxes on an EHR template with a stylus. So you can hold a tablet in the crook of your arm, just like a paper chart, and maintain eye contact with the patient. The Tablet PC software also accommodates digital dictation and is designed for wireless connectivity.

That said, these computers have performed well enough to attract a lot of fans in medicine. Of healthcare providers using mobile, wireless computing devices, 37 percent use a tablet, up from 20 percent in 2003, according to the Medical Records Institute in Boston. "I'd be totally lost with-out my tablet," says ob/gyn Maxine Klein in Hartford, CT. "And it works fine even though I've dropped it three times."

With tablet makers improving their machines and lowering prices, the number of doctors like Klein is bound to increase, although enhancements that please some users will displease others. Here's a summary of tablet PC technology today, along with advice on choosing the machine that might be right for you.

Slate vs convertible: take your pick

Tablets come in two flavors, slate and convertible. A slate has no keyboard, although you can peck on an on-screen keyboard or plug in a real one. A convertible switches from a slate to a notebook when you fold back the screen to reveal an actual keyboard.

Which would be better for you? That depends on your work habits. Maxine Klein, for example, has a slate-style Motion Computing M1300 tablet. She likes to write on the screen in the exam room and type on a plug-in keyboard in her office. If you feel comfortable typing in the exam room, you might prefer a convertible. But keep in mind the comfort factor-convertibles tend to weigh more than slates.

Manufacturers have been tweaking their machines, but the tablet is still a work in progress. One of the initial gripes was about short battery life, which tended to be under four hours. The use of low- and ultra-low voltage processor chips, however, has allowed manufacturers to get as much as nine hours of juice out of a battery. The new Motion Computing LS800 stretches battery life by turning down screen intensity in darker environments. And when the time comes for a fresh battery, you can swap in a new one while the LS800 is in standby mode, so you don't have to turn off or reboot the machine.