It seems that everyone wants a piece of the iPad action. But questions are being raised about the iPad’s – and other consumer-style mobile devices – suitability for specific industry sectors, and whether it could become a mainstream business tool in the healthcare sector.

It’s interesting to read that various hospitals are starting to trial the use of iPads. The question though is whether the tablet form factor is appropriate or even practical enough for this type of tough and often unpredictable environment.

iPads are certainly lighter and more portable than laptops and more readable than smartphones; they also have a whole universe of apps to make content and features easier to access; and the functionality is familiar to most of us so relatively straightforward to use.

So far so good, but then again most healthcare environments, especially hospital wards, do not need access to lots of web-based content, or revolutionary cutting-edge design. On a more practical level, there is the threat of damage.

For doctors and nurses, midwives or care workers, mobility could be a real concern – it’s not just a question of where to put it, but the constant worry about dropping it, spilling fluids on it and damaging it. This has always been an issue for laptops and PDAs, so it is unlikely to be any different for an iPad.

Then there is the issue of theft – iPads are desirable pieces of technology. Not only are they expensive to replace, but also the information stored on them, such as sensitive patient data, could be invaluable, perhaps even life saving.

In healthcare environments where paper is still the key medium for capturing information, there is a need for a more practical and low cost solution for capturing and transmitting data, particularly for a largely mobile workforce.

Digital Pen technology is continuing to win over many NHS trusts and healthcare organisations by putting usability and simplicity over IT wizardry and cool design.

Most recently Doncaster & Bassetlaw NHS Hospital Foundation Trust replaced its old manual pen and paper system with digital pens on 57 wards and departments to collect patient feedback data – saving staff up to 30 hours a week, around 1,500 a year, in the process. It offers a simple but effective alternative to screen and keyboard and tablet solutions and can quickly capture, process, interpret and transmit information in real time.

The pen automatically captures handwritten information in medical or care forms and digitises that information, eliminating the need to manually type it up later. Other examples in healthcare include physiotherapist treatment forms at Rotherham Community Health Services, part of NHS Rotherham; and midwives’ visiting notes at Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust.

It looks like a normal ballpoint pen with a tiny infrared camera at its tip, and stored data is synchronised via a docking station or mobile phone and Bluetooth with back-end systems, rather than remaining on the device itself. For healthcare workers, this means synching and backing up data to patient record systems and other repositories easily and quickly and eliminating the number of potential manual errors.

For those who require duplicate paper reports or documents for regulatory or administrative purposes, like social or care workers, digital paper forms solutions provide the answer. Users require little or no training and can be up and running almost immediately, plus it is practical and robust, extremely light and portable (it can easily fit into a pocket or bag) and because it looks like a normal pen is not typically a target for theft.

When introducing new technology to critical healthcare and social care services, the first consideration should always be the needs of the users and the underlying processes. Tablets like iPads can be a valuable asset – they are mobile, highly functional and provide a great user experience in most situations. But when it comes to more practical uses, especially in healthcare environments, it is a different story.

Adopting the latest cool technology may seem appealing, but the question remains whether it is relevant and appropriate – if not, it will almost certainly cause headaches further down the line.