A PDA in every pocket

A personal digital assistant (PDA) is a handheld computer. PDAs are ubiquitous today, filling pockets, purses, and backpacks.

A personal digital assistant (PDA) is a handheld computer. PDAs are ubiquitous today, filling pockets, purses, and backpacks. In 2004, sales of handheld information technology and communication devices totaled more than $30 billion. The majority (more than 25 million) of “smart” handheld devices purchased worldwide were PDAs.

An estimated 25 percent of U.S. physicians use PDAs in their practices. One survey indicated that when a physician had questions about antibiotics, and could not ask a colleague, he or she used PDA-based resources more than 50 percent of the time.

There are many PDA manufacturers. They come in several forms, and have a variety of characteristics and features. However, all PDAs are small, lightweight, and have touch-sensitive screens. They can run a variety of software. Some have modified, button-style keyboards.

There are three basic types or modes of PDAs. The first type is a “stand-alone” mode, in which applications are loaded into the PDA and then accessed when needed. In “synchronized” mode, the PDA connects via an infrared or wire link to a desktop or laptop computer. Free exchange of information, including updates, is possible. In “wireless” mode, the PDA can establish an Internet connection through a cellular telephone network, or by using wireless local-area network (wi-fi) standards. Connection to the Internet allows for e-mail transmission, access to the World Wide Web and communication to clinical information databases. Wireless connection through a cellular telephone network allows the PDA to also function as a cellular phone.

Almost all PDAs can perform basic services, serving as a calculator, address book, notepad, or for playing games. Depending on the model, software, and licenses, PDAs can send and receive phone calls and e-mails, access the Internet, and subscribe to news services and medical information directories. Many PDAs can download and play music. Advanced PDAs can capture, manipulate, and share images and videos.

PDAs generally use a stylus, a pen-like pointing and writing device, instead of a traditional keyboard. Wireless connection to a miniature keyboard is possible, and makes data entry easier. Other valuable accessories include map navigatation systems, mobile cameras, a desk cradle, AC and auto chargers, and carrying cases.

Wireless interaction mode makes coordination with external information sources easy. Direct proximity to and configuration compatibility with a particular style of computers is no longer required.

Real-time connectivity makes access to valuable information most practical. For example, users can readily conduct online literature searches. Wireless connections also allow for the access of patient records and for electronic sending of prescriptions directly to a pharmacy. Such activities do require special security. Theoretically, anyone could access such information if one is in possession of the unit. Password protection and even encryption can govern access. Current HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations protect the privacy of patient health information. Health information cannot be used or shared without written permission unless allowed by law. Prevention of improper access through PDAs is essential.

A practical example of proper PDA use for dental practitioners could involve the mention of an antibiotic or heart medication in a patient medical history. No one can be knowledgeable about every drug, especially those not used in dentistry. PDAs could help identify the drug and its common uses. Side effects, especially those dentally related, also could be determined. Does the drug cause xerostomia? Would the presence of this drug interfere with one the dentist wishes to prescribe? What is the usual dose and renally adjusted dosage for both drugs?

PDAs perform a variety of important functions for users. Special applications can enhance the ability of dental practitioners to improve patient treatment. There is the possibility that PDAs could aid evidence-based practice. Peer-reviewed studies supporting that position are encouraging, yet currently limited. The most valuable use of PDAs may be to improve educational experiences, and to make patient data collection more efficient.

OSAP, the Organization for Safety & Asepsis Procedures, is dentistry’s prime source for evidence-based information on infection control and prevention, and human safety and health. Additional information concerning HIV transmission is available on the OSAP Web site at www.osap.org.

Dr. Charles John Palenik is an assistant director of Infection Control Research and Services at the Indiana University School of Dentistry. Dr. Palenik is the co-author of the popular “Infection Control and Management of Hazardous Materials for the Dental Team.” He serves on the Executive Board of OSAP. Questions about this article or any infection-control issue may be directed to office@osap.org.

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