Tablet report shows industry's nature

By Jack Beaudoin
12:00 AM

It's too gray. In newspaper jargon, gray is usually bad. A page that's too gray is text-heavy, lacking pictures or graphics, and is generally unappealing to readers. But it's not just a design consideration. Given that newspaper stories are usually short and punchy, we editors tend to prefer stories of stark contrasts, where issues are presented in black and white.

So I was a little perplexed when News/online editor Bernie Monegain and contributing writer John Andrews came back from their reporting on tablet PCs with two differing accounts on the slate's future. Since first hearing rumors that Microsoft might discontinue support for the device in its next operating system, I hoped our first special report would be the definitive word on the future of the tablet PC in healthcare.

Monegain, who anchors our physician practice coverage, found physicians who absolutely loved the devices. The tablets had become integral tools in their practices, as important – and as iconic – as the stethoscope. "This is the wave of the future," Jay Anders, M.D., told her. The tablet PC was the hardware link that enabled electronic medical records to fulfill their promise.

Andrews, on the other hand, talked to consultants, vendors and clinicians, and found that while the tablet PC "appears safe from going the way of the eight-track and Betamax," it was struggling to gain wide acceptance in healthcare, one of the vertical markets that should have held great potential for the format.

My first reaction – one that in hindsight I'm not very proud of – was disappointment. I didn't want to publish a two-part special report that appeared to be self-contradictory. But fate smiled on me – I got a phone call from Gregg Malkary of Spyglass Consulting, who helped put the findings into perspective.

After listening to me explain the apparent conflicts, Malkary was silent for a moment. "So," he said, "it would appear that the workplace environment is the key to the tablet PC's success," he said.

Malkary was right. Physicians loved the tablet in their practices because the work environment was theirs to define. The network infrastructure was designed in part for the specific tablet and software the physician or group had chosen. The exam room had surfaces to set the tablet on. While patients came and went, the physical space was a constant.

The hospital environment, in contrast, is far more heterogeneous. Doctors, not patients, moved from room to room. There are HIPAA concerns, infection control concerns. A hospital's suite of applications is a more complex quilt of software. Nurses don't like devices they have to hold because so much of their work is hands on.

I had forgotten one of the basic rules I'd learned as a cub reporter: If the story looks too simple, you're missing something. In our quest to predict the fate of the tablet PC in healthcare, I wanted clarity where it didn't exist.

The reality is that the tablet PC, like any other IT solution, isn't a magic bullet. Leave the hype to marketers. The tablet PC is going to be a boon to some clinicians, under some circumstances. Others are going to find it useless. It may be a "gray" conclusion, but I'm confident it is an accurate reflection of what's going on in the industry.

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