Many of us feel tethered to our offices with an assortment of electronic devices. Pagers used to be the norm, but their limited range only allowed for use near the office. Answering machines had models with personal pagers, while national paging companies enabled us to be contacted anywhere. Alpha-numeric displays allowed messages to be shown to the doctor, thus eliminating a call to the service. This was the call that, before the proliferation of cell phones, often had to be made on the nearest pay phone. When we went on vacation, we were out of range, and therefore out of touch.
How times have changed. Cell phones have become multifunctional, allowing constant and complete contact with our offices, if we so choose. Suddenly, a vacation can be spoiled by office issues with a mere call on the phone. A photo phone even allows a patient to send a picture of his or her problem directly to the dentist. The multifunctional phones are Web-enabled so e-mail can be retrieved anywhere, anytime.
The most popular telephone model seems to be the Treo 650. This unit not only does all of the Web/e-mail and Palm functions, but also has a decent camera, and can play MP3 music files and movies. Keep in mind that, to fully enable many of these functions, a basic service plan can be more than $75 a month. Other people prefer the Blackberry units, which handle e-mail better. These units have other functions but are not as comprehensive as the Palm interface. Users of each type constantly extol their respective superiority.
These units shine when you are traveling. I usually take a laptop, and then try to find hotels with computer access. If all I need on these trips is e-mail and Web access, the Treo really can lighten my luggage. Of course, on family vacations, contact with the real world is spurned by spouses and family members. On a recent vacation, my wife was in her glory as I had no laptop and no digital phone service, thus rendering my Treo’s e-mail unusable. Later, my frustration was increased even more at a hotel that boasted “free high speed Internet - cable or wireless.”
Of course, there are ways around this. I slipped out under the guise of searching for “Sushi Robo” - an establishment with a machine that rolls all kinds of sushi. (I seem to remember seeing rolling machines about 35 years ago, but that is another story.) I quickly found a sign, “Internet $2/hour,” above a set of stairs leading under a building. Once there, I found a room with a number of flea market-type tables, surplus office chairs, and rows of computers and people. I was instructed to go to unit 28, and was told there would be a minimum $2 charge. Arriving at the computer, I found a keyboard and monitor displaying Windows XP. I logged onto the browser, and found a terrific high-speed service, along with the message “You have 1,026 new messages.” I had a short time to quickly determine which messages needed the delete key. I then printed a few documents, which I figured I would read later. I was charged 15 cents a printed page. So I left paying just $3.45, and felt quite invigorated. Not all Internet cafes are as primitive as this one but most do not splurge on decorating. Some vacation areas have small networks of such venues that allow you to buy an access card, which is useful at several locations. Many of these places have other services such as a fax, international phone service, photo downloads to a CD, and more. There are other options, too. While on vacation, I could have looked for a library, or offered to pay a patron with a laptop at a Starbucks. Keep in mind that, if you are using someone else’s computer, it is best to delete any files and clear your browser “history” before you log off. (This can be done by going to Tools/(Internet) options/ history on the computer.)
I did spot someone in a park, checking e-mail on a laptop. When I asked about it, he said he was using his cell phone as a dialup modem. After researching this, I found that Ositech.com and Futuredial.com have kits and software that allow you to connect a cellular phone via a USB cable to a laptop. With the software, you can surf (albeit slowly) anywhere there is Internet service.
It seems that the new connectivity is a mixed blessing. You have an option to be as close as you want to be to anyone, anywhere, anytime. In earlier years, if I took a vacation, I was away as if on a remote island. Now there is always the temptation to sneak a peek at the home front. I guess I’ll have to continue to find places where there are no cell signal bars!
Dr. Paul Feuerstein installed one of dentistry’s first computers in 1978. For more than 20 years, he has taught technology courses. He is a mainstay at technology sessions, including annual appearances at the Yankee Dental Congress, and he is an ADA Seminar series speaker. A general practitioner in North Billerica, Mass., since 1973, Dr. Feuerstein maintains a Web site (www.computersindentistry.com) and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.