Last week saw the international launch of Microsoft’s Tablet PC software and a series of tablet and slate-style devices by leading hardware manufacturers. Microsoft has high hopes for the Tablet PC, arguing that it will transform the way we work, collaborate and use computers.

Microsoft’s public sector industry manager Jenny Duff told E-Health Insider that research indicated healthcare would be one of the three leading marketplaces for early adoption of the new tablet PC.

Clinical systems developer iSOFT is already developing new applications specifically designed to take advantage of the new capabilities of tablet computers running the new Microsoft software. Other firms such as Graphnet have already made their applications accessible using a tablet device.

The key technologies incorporated in the Tablet PC editions of Windows XP and Office XP are digital paper and digital ink, sophisticated handwriting recognition tools that enable handwriting to be automatically converted into text.

The attraction of the new devices running the special tablet PC software is that they free users from being tethered to a desktop PC. The wirelessly linked tablet PC offers a powerful new networked computing device that enables users to access and enter information in the workplace or while on the move.

For busy health professionals the idea is that the tablet PC will become as indispensable as the stethoscope or thermometer: providing instant access to patient’s electronic records, allow lab results and tests to be ordered and the results called up and cut transcription errors caused by misread handwriting.

Most of the launch devices shown resemble the familiar laptop, but have a display screen that can be swivelled 180 degrees and clipped back, providing a screen that the users can then write on electronically. Other models come without a keyboard and are configured as an electronic slate. The new devices are priced at around the level of a high-end laptop.

One of the first NHS hospitals to trial the tablet PC has been the Royal Brompton Hospital, which with its Graphnet EPR system was selected by Microsoft as the health demonstrator site.

Paul Silvester of the Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Trust has been working with electronic records system supplier Graphnet to implement the transition to Tablet PCs and is already realising the benefits.

Mr Silvester said: “Tablet PC has made a significant difference to the way we work. The handwriting functionality enables us to make notes whilst on the move, removing the duplication of work for doctors who previously would have had to type up their hand written notes when back at their PC.

He added: "We have very skilled doctors who can’t type, and this bridges the gap."

The key said Mr Silvester is providing information access at the point of care. "This new technology enables doctors to retrieve patient results whilst at the point of care. It really does mark a great step forward in computing."

Clinical systems supplier iSOFT used the launch event to demonstrate a new product suite under development called ‘Lorenzo’, an electronic patient record system specifically designed to take advantage of the digital ink capabilities of the tablet PC.

Currently under development, the new Lorenzo products will enable clinicians access up-to-date notes at patient’s bedsides, prescribe drugs, order tests, access results and knowledge-bases in real-time.

iSOFT demonstrated how Lorenzo would enable clinicians to take advantage of the tablet PC’s digital ink capabilities to annotate diagrams, ultrasound images and pictures, and save the information as part of a patient’s electronic record.

Dr Chris Tackaberry, head of clinical R&D with iSOFT, told EHI that the company planned to launch Lorenzo products in 2003 and would also be making its existing clinical applications available on the tablet platform.

He added that while in some industries the tablet PC might replace laptops, in hospitals it would be replacing desktop PCs as there are so few laptops currently used. "Most clinical work is done standing up, at the bedside."

Dr Tackaberry predicted that tablet devices would be rapidly adopted in the healthcare industry. "The demands of the clinical environment are so different from the office environment, and that’s taken some people time to realise."

Microsoft confirmed to EHI that the tablet PC editions of Windows XP and Office XP will be available to NHS users under the existing enterprise software licensing agreement. But a spokesperson pointed out that the new tablet devices will come with the software installed.