Lorne Lavine, DMD
In a previous column, I discussed the benefits of traditional desktop-style computers over laptops, focusing on the better price/performance ratio, larger screens, and expandability. However, there is a relatively newer class of laptops which have become increasingly popular: the Tablet PCs. While I still believe a desktop computer is the better choice in most situations, there are certainly some situations where this type of system just isn't possible. Many offices have very small operatories where the placement of a traditional computer, along with the cabling issues to connect a monitor, make this a challenging task. Some dentists prefer to have one computer they can carry from room to room. In these scenarios, a Tablet PC is a viable option.
There are lists of features which make Tablets unique. All Tablets have handwriting recognition and are able to convert handwriting (yes, even dentists' handwriting!) into text. This feature was quite erratic in the software released when Tablets initially came out, but it has been greatly improved in the latest version of the software. They all have digital ink, which allows you to annotate and draw on the screen. While most practice-management charting programs have yet to take advantage of this feature, a few now support drawings and notes directly on the patient chart. From a design standpoint, they were created to replace paper and pen - think of a Tablet PC as a PDA on steroids. Tablets have built-in wireless networking so you can connect to your practice-management software or digital images, and most also have an Ethernet port should you prefer to connect them to a wired network.
The Tablets come in two varieties: slate and convertible. The slate design is a plain tablet with a touch screen and no attached peripherals. If you want to use a keyboard or mouse, you must use external devices which connect to USB ports. While these are more difficult to move from room to room (since the keyboard must also be moved), the slate is lighter than the convertible model. The convertible is basically a traditional laptop with a swivel screen. The screen is spun 180 degrees on its axis, and is then folded back over the keyboard, thus mimicking the design of the slate. The decision about which style to use will depend on how the office is planning to use the Tablet in the operatory. In most cases, the slate design is the better option, simply because it is lighter and easier to move. However, if the office will be entering treatment notes which require a significant amount of typing, or if the dentist plans to use the Tablet at home as a laptop computer, then the convertible format might be the best system in that situation.
The Tablet introduces many new options for the dentist. It can be used as the computer interface for a completely portable digital radiography system, which would consist of the Tablet, USB box, and sensor. Some companies sell these integrated systems. With a Tablet, a dentist can easily highlight and "draw" on an image to show pathology to a patient. And, with their portability, Tablets can be placed behind the patient to enter management data such as charting, treatment plans, and scheduling.
Of course, no system is perfect, and Tablets are certainly not an exception. Most Tablets are more expensive than laptops with similar system configuration. Finding a similar system configuration on a Tablet is hard to do since most Tablets are a few generations behind laptops when it comes to processor speed. The screens are typically only between 10 to 12 inches. A few companies have recently come out with 14-inch screens, but these still are considerably smaller than modern monitors. In many systems, they are packing many components into a small case, which creates heat. My own experience with Tablets is that after a few hours of use, the bottom can become extremely warm. Finally, due to their small size, Tablets have a relatively short battery life and need to be constantly recharged.
While a desktop system is still the ideal computer for the vast majority of offices, Tablet PCs present another choice for dentists when they are designing their practice's technology systems. Whether as an addition to their existing network or in lieu of desktop systems, Tablets eliminate some of the limitations of laptop computers, and they do have a place in the modern dental practice.
Lorne Lavine, DMD, practiced periodontics and implant dentistry for more than 10 years. He is an A+ certified computer repair technician, as well as Network+ certified. He is the president of Dental Technology Consultants, a company that assists dentists in all phases of technology integration in the dental practice. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (866) 204-3398. Visit his Web site at www.thedigitaldentist.com.