Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) Database Software

A Comparison Of Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) Database Software: A Guide To Choosing An Application For Professional Practice Data Management

Introduction

The Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) is a small hand-held computer that allows users to input and retrieve data. The device was first introduced as a personal information manager in the early 1990’s. Advances in hardware and software development have made PDAs capable of storing, accessing, retrieving and sharing large volumes of data at the point of need and their use is becoming increasingly evident in the healthcare arena. Healthcare professionals often have a variety of data management needs relating to patient care, teaching or research. Although initially useful as a scheduler and subsequently as a clinical information resource, the availability of database software also makes the PDA a useful tool for data collection. (1-5)  The purpose of this article is to provide a general comparison of some database software that is currently available for the PalmTM Operating System (OS) and to develop a decision algorithm, based on key software features, that can help healthcare professionals choose an appropriate application for their data collection needs.

Database Terminology

A database is a collection of data organized in a structured format. The data can be accessed, updated, analyzed and can be presented as useful information in a report format. PDA database software allows users, with no prior programming knowledge, to create databases using a PDA or a personal computer (PC). The database can be made to appear as electronic forms on the PDA and data can then be entered into these forms at the point of care or in a study setting. Collected data is transferable from the PDA to a (PC) either directly via a cable connection to the PC or remotely across the internet or local area network. Typically data analysis occurs on the PC.

In order to appreciate some of the differences between currently available database software that is available for Palm-based PDAs, it is important to be clear on some basic terminology. Key terms include ‘database program’, ‘fields’, ‘records’, ‘files’, ‘flat file’, and ‘relational database’. A brief description of these terms is provided below.

Database program, or database management system (DBMS):

A program or collection of different programs that allow users to enter, organize and manage data in a database. For example, Access (Microsoft, Redmond WA) is a DBMS.

Table:

A single structure of related subject information consisting of fields that are populated to create records. For example, a health record database may store patient demographic information in a single table. Field elements would include name, address, date of birth, and gender.

Field:

The smallest structural component in a database. Fields store data and they represent a characteristic of the table subject (e.g. a demographic characteristic for hospitalized patients).

Record:

One complete set of fields in a table such as name, address, date of birth, and gender for a single patient. All records have the same field structure. The values in each field will be different for different patient records.

Relational database:

A multi-table database with defined relationships between tables.

Flat file database:

A single table database

Searching for PDA Database Software

In order to determine what database development software is available for the PalmTM OS, we conduced an internet search using the GoogleTM search engine with search terms such as ‘PDA’, ‘Palm database’, ‘Palm Operating System database’, ‘Palm OS database’, ‘review of PDA Palm OS databases’, ‘PDA database comparisons’. A PDA software website (PalmGear) and the websites of two online computer magazines (PCMAG and PCWORLD) were searched in attempt to locate previously published information comparing the features of PDA database development software. The MEDLINE database was searched using the OVID search engine.

Search Results

No previous reviews were located that compare the currently available PDA database software. Our search identified seven available PalmTM OS database software programs. These include HanDBase 3.0 (DDH Software Inc, Lake Worth , Fl ), Pendragon Forms 3.2 (Pendragon Software Corportation, Libertyville, IL), SmartList to Go (DataViz Inc. Milford, CT), Satellite Forms 5.1 (Pumatech, San Jose, Ca), dbNow Deluxe 2.0 (Pocket Express, Novato, CA), Jfile (Land-J Technologies Orlando, FL) and FileMaker (Filemaker Inc. Santa Clara, CA). The software differed with respect to cost, system requirements, development platform (i.e. whether or not the database can be developed and or changed on the PDA, PC or both), table and field capacity, ability to synchronize data across networks, ability to share data across multiple PDAs and back-end data management. Back-end data management refers to the format and software in which the data resides on the desktop computer once transferred from the PDA. Some software rendered data in a proprietary format while others natively synchronized with common desktop database software such as Access (Microsoft, Redmond WA). A detailed comparison of PDA database software features is provided in Table 1. [click here to download Table 1 as an Excel file]

Choosing Your PDA Database Software

There are some similarities, as well as some key differences, in functionality between the various database applications that are currently available. Healthcare professionals who wish to incorporate a PDA-based data management tool into their practice setting can choose an appropriate software package by matching their data management project needs with the relevant features that the software provides. What follows are some questions that need to be considered in order to select the most PDA database software.

  • Will a single PDA be used for the project or will multiple PDAs be deployed to multiple users for data collection purposes?
  • Will multiple PDAs be required to transfer data to a single common PC-based database or will data from each PDA be housed on separate computers?
  • If data needs to be transferred to a single common data repository, will this be done in a unidirectional fashion (i.e. the data are transferred from each individual PDA to the database) or in a bi-directional manner (i.e. the data are synchronized from each individual PDA and merged in the master data repository and then the merged data are redeployed to each PDA so that all PDAs contain a complete data set accessible to the user)?
  • Are relational properties needed (i.e. multiple tables that can be linked for analysis)?
  • Will all data synchronization be done locally from one computer or will each PDA user be synchronizing with the database from separate computers? If this is the case cross-network or cross-internet synchronization ability is required.
  • Do you need to be able to store the data on external PDA memory media?
  • What software will be used to query the database on the PC and is the data format compatible with the analytical software of choice. For example some of the software packages render data directly into a format compatible with standard office programs such as Microsoft Access while other packages render data in a proprietary format requiring additional software to make it compatible with the analysis program of choice.
  • Do you need to be able to make alterations to the database structure directly on the PDA or limit database development to a PC only?
  • Do you need to be able to print from the database records directly from the PDA.
  • Do you need to be able to transfer share data with other PDA users via infrared transfer between PDAs?
  • How secure/confidential does the data need to be?
  • What is the cost of the software?

These are not all-inclusive points to consider but taking them into account can help guide the software selection process. The available software can be differentiated according to the features that render solutions to some or all of the needs identified above. A PDA database software selection algorithm that stratifies the identified PDA database software according to some some differences in functionality is provided in figure 1.

Figure 1. PDA Database Software Selection Algorithm

IR= infrared, ODBC = open database connectivity (ODBC provides a the ability to access the database  with numerous analytical software applications), VFS = virtual file system (refers to the ability to store or work with data on external PDA memory media)

Summary

PDA databases are tools that can assist clinicians with patient care or research data collection. We were able to identify seven PDA database software applications that are currently available for the Palm OS. Little or no programming knowledge is required to create a PDA database with these software alternatives but the there are differences in the level of sophistication and features that the programs currently provide. By taking stock of specific data management needs, users can distinguish between the functionality of these programs and select the application most appropriate for their needs.

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