Mobile Technology Speeds up Processes for Indiana U. Med School Students

By Linda L. Briggs

Personal digital assistants, or PDAs, have proven especially popular with medical schools, where the volume of data such devices store for easy retrieval can help students easily access both clinical data and reference materials.

At Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, a PDA initiative has replaced paper forms that were creating time lags of days or weeks. The handheld program has enhanced the school’s learning environment and improved efficiency. The university has nine different satellite campuses throughout Indiana, and all third- and fourth-year medical students from any of the other eight campuses come to Indianapolis at some point for clerkship rotations.

The push for a new system occurred when the accrediting body for U.S. medical schools introduced a new mandate, according to Information Systems Librarian Amy Hatfield and Assistant Director of Educational Technologies Michael Bangert. Under the new rules, medical students must track their clinical rotations, documenting what they are actually seeing in encounters with patients, and how those encounters relate back to learning objectives.

“Previously, we were using paper forms,” Hatfield says. That meant a lag of days or even weeks in collecting data from the students, entering it, evaluating it, and reporting back to students on what they’d completed. “They might have moved on to another clerkship before they found out that they hadn’t really completed all the objectives of the previous one,” Hatfield says.

The program that evolved in response now requires that all third and fourth-year medical students purchase a PDA – a target audience of nearly 600 students at IU. Data is entered by students into the PDAs during or after rotations, and g'es directly to a central server for collection and analysis. That allows students and clerkship directors to check at any time to see which requirements have been completed during a rotation.

To keep the PDAs affordable, IU works with CDW Government, Inc., a subsidiary of CDW Corp. that supplies IT solutions to governments and educators. IU medical students can purchase a package that includes the device, a memory card, and extended warranty, directly from CDW-G via a customized Web page.

The program d'esn’t stipulate a device type, requiring only that the PDA run the Palm operating system. The university encourages the Palm TX model because of its built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities, and 128K memory – helpful because applications can fit on the appliance without an SD card to furnish extra memory. “They can choose something else,” Hatfield says, “and we will do our best [to support it], but our real commitment is to the TX.”

“The biggest feature is the fact that it uses flash memory,” she says. “When the battery g'es dead,” as happens with some frequency when a student forgets or isn’t able to recharge the PDA, “you don’t lose your data.” That was a problem with previous systems.

The first year with the new PDA program in place was difficult, as the two IT specialists struggled to find enough time to support the program. Over just a few months, they worked to develop training programs and to orient students to the new program. The second year was smoother. “Because of our bad experiences [the first year],” Hatfield says, “we decided to be very proactive, with training programs [and] documentation online – we were as prepared as possible before starting rotations.”

By then, half of the students had used the PDA system for a year, so support was much easier. Going into the third year, Hatfield says, student familiarity with handheld devices in general is helping make their job easier. “We’re seeing a higher percentage of students who are more tech-savvy,” she says.

Looking back on the PDA experience, Bangert offers this advice for others: Plan ahead to hire a support person before beginning a PDA program like this, since ample support hours will be required at the beginning. Also, he suggests, work to prepare students ahead of time, before launching the program.

Hatfield and Bangert also try to make the PDAs more valuable to students by showing them other uses, including other medical applications for PDAs. Bangert has also conducted short sessions to show students how to customize their PDAs, play videos, and listen to music on them, all in the name of increasing student interest in the devices.

At the end of this school year, Hatfield says, she found it satisfying when a few fourth-year students asked for help in setting up their PDAs with appropriate applications for their upcoming residencies. Clearly, they planned to continue using their systems. “It was just a handful, but I think it’s going to increase as we get the students more engaged in using it,” she says.

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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