Information at fingertips improves patient safety

Many applications available for PDAs

Although Cheryl Burnette, RN, MEd, an education specialist at Centra Health in Lynchburg, VA, purchased a personal data assistant (PDA) to track appointments, addresses, and telephone numbers, she quickly realized she was underutilizing the technology. Her PDA had the capacity to store much more information, and she could download a multitude of databases from the Internet. As an RN educator, she now shows nurses how information at their fingertips improves patient safety. Often Burnette encourages students in nursing school to ask for a PDA as a graduation present.

"I realized there are a lot of things that a nurse needs at her fingertips. Because it is not easily accessible, it is very difficult to get to the reference material," she says.

For example, when nurses have to administer a drug to a patient, they have no easy way to check to see what a normal dose should be, the side effects, the contraindications, or the interaction with other drugs. The Physicians’ Desk Reference usually is down the hall at the nurse’s station. There are smaller books that can be kept on the medicine cart, but neither of these references is quick to access or easily updated.

Burnette read about a database called Epocrates ( that has free, up-to-date drug information that many physicians, nurses, and pharmacists use. She now pays a fee to subscribe to the advanced version that has more features. For instance, there is information on herbs, so it is easy to check to see if an herb a patient is taking will interact with the prescribed drug. "With the enhanced version, if a nurse has a patient on 10 drugs, he or she can put in the names of all the drugs and the PDA will check for problems of drug interactions," says Burnette.

Checking drugs easy with PDAs

There are so many drugs available to patients, and it is impossible for nurses and physicians to know the indication for them all. Having the information on a PDA makes it much easier to check and cross-check, thus improving patient safety.

There are other applications that improve patient safety. PalmEKGn is a free database (available at that shows all the heart rhythms. Nurses working on the cardiovascular floor can quickly verify a heart rhythm if needed. There also is a database that allows medical professionals to check out unfamiliar diagnoses that Burnette has downloaded onto her PDA. With this application, she is able to show nurses, if they have a patient with congestive heart failure and Addison’s disease and they have not have had a patient with Addison’s disease in a while, they can look it up on their PDA.

Burnette also has an entire volume of clinical lab values and tests on her PDA she purchased to show her students the variety of information they can download on the system. With this database, if a test is not familiar, a nurse can quickly look it up. Also, on her PDA, she has the Lippincott Manual of Nursing Practice.

Many programs available

Even though Burnette is not in clinical practice she collects the programs to show nurses what is available. "It is not just one application — really, it is almost having the whole library at your fingertips," she says. However, she advises those who have never used a PDA to get use to using it before downloading medical information. Burnette recommends first using the devise to track phone numbers and appointments for a couple of months. "It is a learning process. I don’t want people to load their PDA up with all the applications I have because it can be overwhelming," says Burnette. Once ready to start adding applications, she suggests it is good to start with Epocrates.

When medical professionals have the information on their PDA, it is much easier to validate decisions or to determine that the physician must be contacted for clarification or collaboration about the patient’s care, says Burnette.


For more information about using PDAs to improve patient safety, contact:

Cheryl Burnette, RN, MEd, Education Specialist, Centra Health Inc., 3300 Rivermont Ave., Lynchburg, VA 24504. Telephone: (434) 947-5108. E-mail: