Every aspiring healthcare professional should receive two glamorous gifts upon admission to medical or nursing school—a great stethoscope and a rugged tablet PC.  Twenty-first century medical practice absolutely depends on both.

Use of tablets began on battlefields and in field hospitals, where corpsmen, transport teams, and triage doctors used them to coordinate care for wounded soldiers.  The greatest advances in hardware and software continue to come from battlefield caregivers and medical relief workers in Haiti, who act on the inescapable fact that necessity is the mother of invention.

A physician’s very first aid-kit

The bigger the medical practice, the more far-flung the service area, and the more demanding the work environment, the more essential a rugged tablet PC becomes. 

First responders rely on their rugged tablets to transmit patient data to ERs and trauma centers, often capitalizing on major healthcare providers’ broadband and wireless networks to retrieve patients’ medical histories while they are in transit—especially valuable with unconscious or incoherent patients who cannot provide reliable information about their prescription medications and allergies. Similarly, the nation’s top hospitals put cart-mounted tablets at their patients’ bedsides, linking them to nursing stations and primary care physicians’ PCs, so that all caregivers have up-to-date, accurate information about patients’ conditions and cares.  As physicians and residents make rounds, they enjoy instant access to patients’ medical histories and treatment programs, coordinating immediate intervention with long-term rehabilitation and care.  Perhaps most importantly, those dedicated physicians and certified nurse practitioners who devote themselves to service in rural areas and on native American lands absolutely depend on their tablets not only for patient information but also for access to diagnostic tools and new treatment procedures.  For them, the tablet provides Grey’s Anatomy, PDR, DSM, and the most prestigious medical journals on North America’s forbidding frontiers.

“Rugged” is an understatement.  If only they made “intrepid.”

In banking, iPads have become standard issue for account executives; among attorneys, RIM’s new PlayBook is gaining currency because of its privacy protection.  But standard tablets cannot meet the special demands or stand-up to the punishment in healthcare.  Standard tablets pose hygiene and contamination risks, and they do not afford adequate protection against dust, liquids, and impact.  How many viruses and bacteria can flourish in the little nooks and crannies on a standard netbook or laptop?  How many fluids can seep through unsealed seams in computer cases, threatening the hard drive and circuitry?  How many times can a sleep-deprived resident drop his handheld before it needs intensive care.  In fact, any computer with a regular keyboard, exposed ports, or an unsealed, poorly padded case has no place in a treatment room, operating theatre, or controlled environment. 

Rugged tablet PCs, of course, are designed and built to protect against all these hazards.  Waterproof cases and tightly sealed touchpads protect against contaminants of all kinds, and they allow for easy cleaning with anti-bacterials or rubbing alcohol.  Stainless steel or composite cases resist impact, and the best rugged tablets have extra shock-absorbent padding throughout their cases and around their essential components.  Choosing a rugged tablet, look carefully at the “IP” rating: 54 is good, and 65 is optimal.  In early discussions of tablet PC tolerances, “IP” frequently stood for “international protection,” signifying one global standard for testing and measurements; as tablets have grown more sophisticated, “IP” has evolved to mean “ingress protection,” maintaining the global standards but stressing a tablet’s resistance to dust and liquids.  In the numbers, the first digit indicates the tablet’s resistance to foreign objects, and the scale goes from 1 to 6 with 6 representing perfect imperviousness to all particulates.  The second digit indicates moisture resistance: 1 tells you the tablet will resist dripping water, and 8—highest on this scale—means the machine safely can remain immersed in water for a minute.  “54,” therefore, tells you that your tablet will work in dust and dirt and shake-off a good splash.

In hospitals and offices, a tablet’s battery life matters little as long as users have back-up batteries and easy access to chargers.  In the field, however, battery life may emerge as a user’s prime consideration.  Advances in battery technology have extended real-world battery life almost to eight hours in “normal” use, and state-of-the-art batteries recharge quickly and completely.  Users must remember, though, larger processors, bigger memories, and extra applications dramatically reduce battery life.  Among your essential accessories, include a battery charger for use in your car, and include at least two extra batteries to assure you stay up and running at all times.