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    The Medical Palm Review

    01 November, 2004 (V5N10) - Free Trade

    Do you want to share appointment and address book data between your Palm and other applications, like Outlook? It can be done, but there are just a few details to take care of.

    The Outlook for Data Sharing

    I rely on my Palm handheld to keep track of my appointments and things to do when I am not at my desk. But I still prefer the software on my desktop PC for managing those activities. Why? Same old things: small screen and awkward stylus text entry on the handheld makes it less convenient for entering all but the briefest notes. Also, although I can check e-mail on my Palm I can't multitask. I can't look at e-mail messages while checking appointments at the same time. Instead I have to look at an e-mail, switch to the appointment book, then switch back to compose a reply. As any Mac, Linux, or Windows user will tell you, it's much easier on a PC. The mobility I gain from my Palm makes it very useful, but it often seems that the mobile device is a field worker to the desktop's head office.

    On the PC I could use the Palm Desktop program to manage all my activities, then HotSync to my PDA, but I just had to be different.... For many years I have been using Time & Chaos for Windows and I like it too much to want to switch to the Palm Desktop. Fortunately, a separate program called a conduit lets me HotSync to T&C instead of the Palm Desktop. Thus I can continue with the appointment manager software that is familiar to me and still share the info with my Palm handheld.

    Most Windows users are accustomed to Microsoft Outlook and many would probably not want to have to switch to Palm Desktop. Fortunately for them, there are ways to get your info from Outlook onto a Palm. Many of these strategies will work for a PocketPC also, if that is what you carry around. For example:

    • Outlook and Palm Desktop Alone. Newer Palm Desktop installation CDs know to check for Outlook on your PC and then give you the option of synchronizing to Outlook or the Palm Desktop software. If you choose Outlook, then the CD installs the necessary conduits to let Outlook talk to your handheld when it is plugged into its cradle. Easy.
    • Chapura Synchronization Products. Chapura makes several. They facilitate synchronizing your handheld and your Outlook PC software and some provide additional features. There are also PocketPC versions of these programs if you have to support more than one family of handheld devices. These programs work with almost any Palm or Sony device so older PDAs can talk to Outlook too. Newer PalmOne PDAs come with a basic version of Chapura's PocketMirror built-in and this will provide rudimentary synchronization with Outlook. On the right you can see a shot of Chapura's KeySuite. On this screen some synchronization configuration "rules" are apparent.
    • DataViz Products. Beyond Contacts lets you synchronize with Outlook and significantly enhances the Palm's built-in phone book and calendar functions. An older package called Desktop To Go has gone, er, been discontinued although it appears to still be quite functional with Palm OS 5.x as of this writing. One noteworthy feature of Beyond Contacts is synchronization with the Outlook e-mail inbox.
    • Intellisync for Yahoo. This will allow you synchronize data (notes, calendar, addresses) from Palm to Yahoo. Your information is then online and available from anywhere that you can get to a web browser. The data can be retrieved from Yahoo online and imported to Outlook. This is a free service but you need to register.
    • FranklinCovey PlanPlus 2.0. This software is primarily designed to provide project planning features to Outlook. But it also enables users to synchronize Outlook to Palm or PocketPC handhelds. You can learn more at the PlanPlus home page.

    PCWorld has a recent article comparing Chapura and DataViz synchronization products which describes many of the pros and cons of each package. InfoSync also took a look at Chapura's Key Suite. Slipstick Systems has a much more extensive list of links to products that share data between Outlook and various brands of handheld computers.

    But what if you don't use Outlook? What if you need to integrate data from several sources onto your PDA? Fortunately, with one exception (more about that later), Palm has made it easy to import data to the desktop using files in standard formats. If you can export data from the other sources in one of those standard formats, the Palm Desktop can import it and you can synchronize to your handheld. Some examples:

    • Outlook itself has very flexible reporting abilities. For instance, you can take a list of tasks to do and extract it in several formats (plain text or text files with commas or tabs separating each item of data). Palm Desktop can read those reports and then you are all set. You can perform the same trick in the opposite direction from Palm to Outlook.
    • Microsoft Excel and other spreadsheet software, word processors, and databases can export tables of data in standard formats like comma- or tab-separated text. If you have been maintaining lists of staff and their phone numbers in a spreadsheet or data table, you can bring that information into the Palm Desktop.
    • Dimex is an inexpensive utility program that converts Palm databases to MS Excel and vice versa. First you format the Excel spreadsheet; then you export to Outlook using a CSV file formatted to suit Outlook.

    But don't forget: all these programs and tactics require compromises and adjustments. For example, memos can't be shared between Time & Chaos and Palm (T&C doesn't include a memo function). Some of these programs permit more phone numbers than the Palm handheld's limit of five - which will you keep when you import? When importing data from one program to another you have to match categories or some information will be left out or records will be corrupted. These tradeoffs require a bit of planning. Otherwise you may experience frustration and waste alot of time.

    One last point. Data file export to another medium has other uses. It's a great way to make a backup file. And if you were planning to switch from using a Palm PDA to a PocketPC device (but why would you do that??) you could transfer data files easily to your new machine.

    The exception to standard data files for export and import is the Palm appointment calendar. For reasons that are unclear, this is the only Palm application that requires a unique import file format. This restricts the external programs that can export to Palm directly. What's needed is a translation utility that will convert other data files into Palm appointment database format. I found one. The story behind that after this commercial break....

    A Case Study in Palm Data Import

    The Emergency Department at my hospital does its physician scheduling and payroll with a custom database running on Microsoft Access. Before we started using it, we relied upon a large, slow Microsoft Excel spreadsheet but it was awkward to modify shift length and pay scale settings. The new software system (now in use for about one year) is much more flexible. But another advantage is its ability to generate all sorts of reports that can be used for additional purposes.

    Now a simple button click will send an e-mail with a copy of the master schedule to the entire physician group. After a few hours of help from a programmer/consultant, we now also have the capability to send out individual schedules by e-mail to each physician. This can help ensure that none of us misread the complicated master schedule and then not show up for work sometimes. For those of us who manually plug our schedules into our daytimers, PCs or PDAs, this could save time and reduce the transcription error rate. The result? Happier doctors and fewer people failing to show up for work - hopefully.

    I had the brain wave to ask the programmer to set up the individual schedules not just as Excel spreadsheets (everyone has Excel and can thus look at their list of shifts) but also to attach a second copy as a CSV file. CSV stands for Comma Separated Values and these text files can be readily imported into Outlook and, from there, into handheld computers. That should be further reduce errors and increase convenience, no?

    You can see an example of a CSV report to the right. The top line has the names of each data field - e.g.. date, shift start time, shift end time, and location. Starting on the third line you can see actual data fields, each separated by a comma.

    But was this really a useful idea? Before setting up the reports and writing instructions I polled the group. Out of twenty-five, about half were interested in putting schedules into Outlook on their desktops and about half were interested in importing their work schedules into Palms, with some overlap between the two groups. For the cost and work involved in setting this up, it seemed worthwhile until I looked at the survey responses more closely.

    It seemed that most of the Palm users did not use Microsoft Outlook. And you may recall from the first article in this issue of the Review that the Appointment Calendar is the Palm application with the unique data format that other applications can't match. How was I going to translate the Excel or CSV reports from the schedule system into something Palm users could employ? Did I mention that none of my colleagues was prepared to spend alot of money to buy one of the programs I reviewed above?

    Fortunately there is a free conversion utility program that can take a properly formatted text file and make it into something that Palm Desktop could import. Not only did it solve my problems but it taught me alot about Palm data files. Convdb, as it is called, is simple, small, cheap, and easy to use. With it, I found a way to create one data file (the CSV) which would support Outlook and Palm Desktop users and, by extension, PocketPC and Palm users.

    It looks like a home run but we're not done yet. I have distributed instructions to all potential users, and set up a website where they can review illustrated step-by-step guides. But the users haven't rushed to embrace this and I can see why. Most of us will only use this setup about twice per year (when new schedule blocks are created and published). Many will have forgotten my instructions and mislaid the converter program long before the next rotation cycle begins.

    So I expect I will be making lots more phone calls and sending a flurry of e-mails in February when the time comes. Training, troubleshooting for users, and more training will be far more time-consuming than the actual development of the system for making and distributing the schedules to all the doctors. It was ever thus.

    What's New - Hardware

    GPS navigator by PalmOne is a kit that you add to your Palm PDA to make it a GPS navigation system for your car. The software will even give voice-guided directions as you proceed. This is good because I would probably wreck my car if I had to take my eyes off the road to scrutinize the maps on the typical Palm screen.

    Active Corporation makes cardiac monitoring devices for Palm OS devices. They look cool and have gained decent reviews but they are not priced for casual users.

    The trend to larger amounts of RAM on PDAs is excellent news for medical users like me. To put several medical references onto my PDA used to require a hefty external memory card. No longer. At 64 Mb of RAM on the latest models, I would have more than enough room for all my texts on the PDA's internal memory. Then I could reserve the external card for ECGs and photos of skin rashes to show my students. Currently I use a CD for that purpose. If I could access a PDA's data card with a USB cable to show images on the screen of a desktop PC in my department it would certainly change my approach and let me take the CD out of my pocket and leave it at home.

    It's the end of Zaurus English-language PDAs. Sharp Electronics has decided to restrict future models and sales efforts to Japan where the market has been kinder to them. And this after Sony's recent retreat back to Japan with its Cliés. It's another sign of the tough market for handheld computers - and those exotic new cell phones with Palm-like capabilities are not even flooding onto the market yet.

    What's New - Software

    Shots 2004 for Palm OS is now available from The Group on Immunization Education of the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine. Now in its fifth year, Shots 2004 includes current American adult and child immunization recommendations, including Smallpox. The Pocket PC version is available at the same site. Shots 2004 is free to download.

    Medical "Doc" of the Month

    Here's a primer, published in the British Medical Journal, on using PDAs in Residency in the UK by Mohammad Al-Ubaydli. I think all medical students and house officers will recognize the stresses he describes and how he uses a PDA to help.

    Medical Computing

    The New York Times describes Neighbornode, a project to promote sharing WiFi hotspots for communities. This has interesting potential for volunteer and community agencies to provide high-tech medical support services. Think it won't catch on? Check out Craigslist and do some lateral thinking.

    In Times to Come

    Now that I need reading glasses, I often grumble about the small screen and type on my PDA. But what if I were blind? Would a Palm be any use to me? Next month we will take a look at this question.

    We will also return to the topic of accessing the web with a PDA. There are ways to make web sites more accessible to PDA users, including the disabled, that we can all make use of whether as web site developers or as clients.

    This is one of a continuing series of newsletters on Palm handheld computers, prepared for doctors, nurses, IT professionals, educators and other people who need tools that work. Feel free to pass copies around electronically of on paper. To subscribe, comment, or complain, contact the author

    Visit our website for the latest Medical Palm Review newsletter and the archive of back issues.