Digital pen holds promise as alternative to conventional EHR note-taking

A 10-year-old form of scanning technology known as the "digital pen" is slowly starting to move into healthcare. Because it's based on paper forms, this method of digitizing data holds promise for pulling EHR-averse doctors into the electronic era.

The digital pen that's already being used in emergency departments and at some hospitals was developed by a Swedish company called Anoto, which exhibited at last week's HIMSS11 conference in Orlando, Fla.

Among the U.S. software firms with digital pen products are Shareable Ink--which is used by ED information system vendor T-System, among others--and Satori, which recently was purchased by ambulatory care EHR vendor NextGen. At HIMSS, NextGen demonstrated a digital pen product that replaces the clipboard that patients fill out in doctors' offices and captures the patient-entered data in the EHR.

Meanwhile, Allscripts plans to use the Shareable Ink product for clinical purposes, which Stanley Crane, the company's chief technology officer, demonstrated at the Allscripts booth at HIMSS. While the company isn't yet ready to make an announcement, it's believed that Allscripts will allow doctors who don't feel comfortable with computers to use digital pens to capture data on paper templates.

The basic idea of a digital pen is that it contains a camera that scans notations on paper, ranging from checks in checkboxes to circles around or cross-outs of choices. The software can also recognize handwriting and convert it into text. In the Shareable Ink version, when a pen is "docked" to a computer, it uploads the data to a remote server, where the data goes into the proper fields in an electronic record.

According to Stephen Hau, president of Shareable Ink (and the founder of PatientKeeper), the accuracy of the application approaches 100 percent for checkboxes. The handwriting recognition accuracy is only 80 percent on average, he says, but the software is capable of "learning" the idiosyncrasies of individual users, similar to what Dragon voice recognition software is able to do. Virginia Carpenter, vice president of marketing for Anoto, says that handwriting recognition can be up to 95 percent accurate, depending on the vendor. 

To learn more:
- see NextGen's announcement (.pdf)
- read the press release about Shareable Ink's partnership with T-System (.pdf)