Making the Little Things Count: Handheld Database Selection

Handheld devices, once dismissed as 'geek toys,' are increasingly finding homes in enterprises of all sizes and types. But with many employees buying their own devices, it is vital that organizations chose the right handheld database.
Posted March 27, 2003

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

See sidebar on available handheld databases.

Handheld devices, once dismissed as "geek toys," are increasingly finding homes in all enterprises of all sizes and types. The medical and education fields, for example, are big adopters of PDA's.

"We are introducing our graduate students to the idea that handhelds are an essential tool of the medicine bag," says Chris Chris Helopoulos, associate director of Clinical Education at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., and developer of HandEchart, a medical database application based on the popular HanDBase program from DDH Software. "That way they will have so much more information at their fingertips."

Unfortunately, many handhelds are "stealth" devices, as employees buy their own units and synch them up with their workstations, creating a gaping security hole. To counter this trend, companies need to establish rules, software and protocols that apply across the enterprise. While this applies to device selection, it is also vital that organizations chose the right handheld database -- one that is relational, device independent and is simple for IT to implement.

Enterprise Needs

With 13 million PDAs sold last year alone, there are now ample software products available. Visit the PalmSource Web site for example and you'll find links to many of the 16,000 applications written for that platform. In the database area alone, there are nearly 200 listings.

Scrolling through these database offerings, however, you quickly find one huge problem. Most DB's are targeted for a particular, narrow application and are not geared toward enterprise usage. Yet it is important to utilize a database platform that will seamlessly integrate with the organization's backend databases. That way, PDAs become an extension of the overall IT structure rather than an isolated information island.

Selecting a handheld database, then, entails several considerations. First of all, you need to decide which platform to support -- Palm, Pocket PC or both. Palm has the greater established base of users and greater simplicity of operation, but Pocket PC is more robust. If you are uncertain which to go with, or if users are buying their own devices, it is probably best to choose a database that supports both platforms. And as no one can predict with confidence which of these two will win the platform war, it isn't wise to favor one over the other.

Next is the matter of determining which databases you will need to synch up with. After all, you want PDAs to interact with the main corporate systems. If you are an Oracle shop, it better support Oracle; if you are a Microsoft shop, it better connect with Access and SQL Server. If, on the other hand, you are like many enterprises and use more than one type of database, make sure the product supports a wide variety of DB options so you don't get locked in to a particular vendor. You should also ensure that the Handheld DB has a direct conduit to the backend DB, rather than having to synch with a DB on a workstation for translation before information is relayed to the actual enterprise database. The plumbing from handheld DB to corporate DB should be simple and seamless.

Another pivotal selection point is the type of database -- tend towards relational database for handhelds in all but the simplest uses. Flat files are fine for a few limited actions, but you will quickly find yourself wanting to tie together different sources and will want the flexibility and functionality of a relational DB.

Finally, you will want to ensure that the PDAs will be able to perform peer-to-peer wireless updating of information via Bluetooth, infrared or 802.11, rather than having to come back into the office and synchronize with the server. This is particularly important when you have a group working out in the field on a project, and they need to keep each other current.

Bedside Manner

Helopolous of the Barry University clinic selected DDH's HanDBase to develop his database application. For one thing, he couldn't dictate what types of devices his students would buy and HanDBase is the only relational database that works with both Palm and Pocket PCs.

"I've always felt, and still feel, that the better platform for medicine is Palm because of how many programs are out there," he explains. "I suggest that the students purchase Palms, but we will still have one or two come in with Pocket PCs."

Helopolous trains physician's assistants. As part of the program, students spend time working alongside doctors in a variety of settings -- emergency rooms, surgery, pediatrics, etc. They spend six weeks in each of these places before going on to the next. He developed HandEchart as a way for the students to log their patient visits to ensure that they are gaining the proper balance of experience. After seeing a patient, the student spends one to three minutes inputting demographic and treatment information into the database.

At the end of the six weeks, the students all return to the classroom where they wirelessly synch their handhelds with Helopolous's and download their treatment records, about 7,000 total. This process takes a couple minutes. He then dumps the combined student records from his PDA into an Access database for storage and analysis. He has found some interesting data as a result. For example, the most common reason patients were visiting emergency rooms was not heart attacks or auto accidents, but was back pain.

The database also acts as a simpler way helps in maintaining student records. He cites the example of a hospital calling him and wanting to know a recent graduate's experience before granting her surgical privileges. Since that student had used a handheld, he was able to generate an Excel spread sheet detailing her experience and fax it over to the hospital, all in five minutes.

"It was a lot easier than going to the closet and pulling the data out of a file cabinet," he says.

While Helopolous continues to develop HandEchart based on user feedback, its use has already expanded to two other universities nearby, and he is getting it ready for use in the rest of the nation's physician's assistant programs.

See sidebar on available handheld databases.

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