Slashed billing cycles, improved employee retention and effective recruiting are three powerful reasons companies are turning to PDAs. Healthier data An electronic recruiter More Power of Technology articles The bracket game Power line timeline Once considered a toy for corporate techno whizzes or gadget-happy managers,\u00a0PDAs are, in increasing numbers, becoming a daily business tool for front-line workers. And analysts project wide-scale adoption over the next two years.Of course, passing out PDAs is simple and relatively inexpensive. The challenges of corporate deployment come in data integration, synchronization and security, says Bill Clark, a Gartner analyst. Companies that are vigilant over business processes will be best-positioned to reap the benefits of PDAs because they already have robust back-end systems into which these devices easily fit, he adds.The transportation and financial services industries have led the way on PDA implementations, but manufacturing and healthcare also have seen their share of forward-looking applications, says Scott Lundstrom, an analyst at AMR Research.Healthier dataThe North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System (LIJ) in Great Neck, N.Y., is one example of a healthcare organization powering up with PDAs. About 300 physicians now use Palm PDAs to capture and track billing information as they make their rounds, rather than relying on the old method of writing out patient, procedure and diagnosis information on index cards. "The cards would filter in at the end of each day \u2014 if we were lucky," says Rick Carney, CIO at North Shore-LIJ, the nation\u2019s third largest, nonprofit secular healthcare system. About 20% of the records simply vanished, "and a lot of what we did get was unreadable, which led to data-entry problems and delays in billing."In November 2001, North Shore-LIJ ditched the cards in favor of Palm IIIs, which physicians pluck presynced from cradles as they enter the hospital. ChargeKeeper, an application from PatientKeeper, tracks patient visits, procedures and prescriptions. On the doctors\u2019 way out, they put the Palms in their cradles, and the data is uploaded to an Oracle database. For an investment that Carney characterizes as "several hundred thousand dollars \u2014 well under a million," North Shore-LIJ claims a 490% return on investment. The company enjoys cleaner, more complete data, which means less manual data entry and fewer invoices "bounced" by the billing system, Carney says. "We\u2019re sending bills out faster, so we\u2019re being paid faster," he adds.Another healthcare company \u2014 Visiting Nurses\u2019 Association (VNA) Home Health Systems, in Santa Ana, Calif. \u2014 began using PDAs as an employee retention tool. The company\u2019s nurses and clinicians are paid by the visit; to earn as much as their peers in hospitals, they must see about six patients per day, says CEO Jeneane Brian, who also is a developer who wrote one of the Palm applications.In 2000, VNA Home Health had a severe retention problem: The turnover rate within nurses\u2019 first 90 days on the job was 27%. One reason was that the traveling nurses faced 48 minutes of paperwork per hour of care delivered. Hospital nurses\u2019 paperwork load was 30 minutes \u2014 60% less than their traveling counterparts. VNA Home Health nurses were leaving the company because to make a reasonable salary they had to spend evenings and weekends doing paperwork.In early 2001, the company distributed 250 Palm IIIs. Nurses sync their devices twice a day. In the morning, they download patient information they need for the day; in the evening, they upload their records to a Microsoft Access database. VNA Home Health uses Pendragon Software\u2019s Forms 3.1 as the development platform for its homegrown applications and Pendragon SyncServer 2.0 for data synchronization.The new system is good for patients and nurses alike, Brian says. "In the old paper-based system, latency of data was extraordinary. Clinicians were forced to make decisions on the fly [because they hadn\u2019t gotten the] sluggish paper data," she says. Now nurses have access to all the information they need from physicians, pharmacists, social workers and others.With paperwork demands reduced up to 45% and hourly pay thus effectively increased, VNA Home Health\u2019s turnover rate within nurses\u2019 first 90 days has plunged to 4.5%, Brian says. In an employee satisfaction survey, the company asked if the presence of a PDA-based system would influence nurses\u2019 future decisions to work for an agency; 99.9% said "yes."An electronic recruiterIndeed, PDAs can be effective recruiting tools. The University of South Dakota, one of Network World\u2019s\u00a02002 User Excellence Award Honorable Mentions, can attest to that. A few years ago, the university noticed the colleges with which it competed were touting laptop programs, which it deemed too pricey, says Roberta Ambur, CIO at the school, in Vermillion. "We knew PDAs would be cheaper, and we liked the additional mobility they offered," she says.The school launched a first-of-its-kind program, requiring freshmen to use Palm PDAs to register for classes, e-mail questions to professors, take notes, schedule appointments with advisers and the like. Students and faculty use XTNDConnect Server from Extended Systems to synchronize and send data to each other and to their PCs.Now in its second year, with 2,700 devices in use, the program is an incontrovertible success. Professors have begun to optimize lectures and tests around the Palms\u2019 capabilities and, more importantly, freshman enrollment has risen. Anecdotal evidence shows the PDAs are a factor in the higher enrollment. Indeed as the PDA sheds its gadget image, it is becoming a factor in corporate competitiveness, too.Ulfelder is a freelance writer in Southborough, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com .