Earlier this month industry group CompTIA reported that one in four doctors will buy a tablet PC in the next year. As shown in Figure 1, doctors are looking to improve care and their cost/revenue balance, and medical tablets can help on both fronts. The growing interest in tablets is also motivated by the arrival of low-cost hardware and tablet-friendly operating systems like Microsoft* Windows* 7.
Although price is a key motivator for the medical tablet buying spree, it is important to remember that price isn’t everything. Health care providers must consider other factors such as durability and functionality in order to meet their goals of improved service and a better financial picture. I recently read an excellent discussion of the issues written by Panasonic (PDF, registration required). Let’s review the main issues now:
Durability: Many doctors are considering consumer-oriented tablets like the Apple iPad. These devices have low up-front costs, but they are easily damaged. As a result, consumer-grade devices suffer from a high total cost of ownership (TCO). Figure 2 shows the results of a study by VDC Research that compares the five-year costs of mobile devices with varying levels of ruggedization. As shown in the figure, ruggedized devices have significantly higher up-front costs (shown in green) but they quickly pay for themselves through lower repair and replacement costs (shown in gray).
Ruggedization is also important because hospital equipment must be sanitized frequently. To make sure your tablet can tolerate repeated cleaning, look for IP-rated equipment. Depending on where the tablet will be used, it may also need to meet a variety of standards such as those listed in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Important medical standards; click to enlarge. (Source: Embedded Innovator)
These concerns make purpose-built medical tablets like the Arbor Technologies Gladius G0710 shown in Figure 4 a better choice. This 7” tablet features an IP54-compliant enclosure and is certified to FCC Class B, EN60601-1, EN60601-1-2, and UL60601-1. The Gladius G0710 can withstand a 4-foot drop; shock up to 10G/11ms; and vibration up to 1 Grms/5~500Hz.
Figure 4. The 7” Arbor Technologies Gladius G0710 features an Intel® Atom™ processor Z510.
Functionality: Medical facilities are already packed with electronic devices. Adding tablets to the mix can complicate matters. For example, it gives the IT department another set of devices to manage. One way to get around this problem is to have the tablet play multiple roles. For example, a convertible tablet PC can do double duty as a physician’s desktop computer, reducing the load on the IT department. As another example, Mobile Clinical Assistants (MCAs) have integrated features such as barcode scanners, RFID readers and cameras to improve point-of-care productivity.
When considering the feature set, be sure to consider whether you need touch input or pen input. Most consumer-grade tablets have transitioned to capacitive touch screens, but these screen fall short if you need to hand-write notes. Consider looking for tablets that can accept both touch and pen input for maximum flexibility and usability.
Also make sure the tablet supports the right combination of connectivity options, such as Wifi*, cellular, and Bluetooth. Some tablets offer these wireless features as options, allowing you to pay only for the features you need.
Finally, it is critical to ensure that the tablet has the appropriate level of security features. Options like fingerprint scanners are must-have items for many applications. Also consider BIOS-level security technology like Computrace to ensure that you can lock down the machine in case of theft.
The Advantech MICA-101 shown in Figure 5 is an example of a feature-rich tablet. This Mobile Clinical Assistant offers:
- Integrated camera and RFID reader
- Optional image based barcode scanner (no lasers)
- Dual resistive and digitizer panels for touch operation and digital pen recognition
- Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and optional 3.5 G mobile communication
- Optional fingerprint reader
Figure 5. The Advantech MICA-101 offers a long list of features including support for both touch and pen input.
Ergonomics: Don’t forget that the tablet must be easy to carry! Look for features such as straps and supports for comfortable all-day operations. Weight is another concern—a lighter tablet is easier to carry. However, make sure the light weight does not come with a short battery life. A too-short battery life will significantly reduce the usefulness of the tablet PC.
As an example of an ergonomic design, consider the Arbor Technologies M1255. As shown in Figure 6, this Mobile Clinical Assistant features a no-slip grip that can also be used with a shoulder strap. The tablet comes with a hot-swappable external battery to push service life to 3.5 hrs, yet is weighs only 1.6 kg (3.5 lbs) with the external battery included.
Figure 6. The Arbor Technologies M1255 features an ergonomic design.
The bottom line is that not all tablets are alike. Tablets vary widely in areas such as durability, functionality, and ergonomics. Before selecting a medical tablet, make sure you know which features are important for your unique requirements.
Advantech is a Premier member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance. Arbor Technologies is an Affiliate member of the Alliance.
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)
Intel® Embedded Alliance
Embedded Innovator magazine