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Why I took my home computer to work.

About four years ago, in order to learn about microcomputers, I bought a Radio Shack Model I with tape drive and 48K of memory. The unit was on sale, and it was perfect for my needs. Within a year, I had learned to program in BASIC and put together a moderate of personal programs.

It didn't take long to realize how useful the computer would be at the independent cancer screening lab where I worked. I had charge of quality control for the lab--more than 40 cytotechnologists--and also directly supervised eight cytotechnologists.

Although we had a mainframe computer, it was fully utilized for billing clients and reporting test results. The mainframe also produced raw statistics on cytotechnologists' findings, but these were spread out over 50 pages of accordion-fold printouts. I had to comb through the printouts, extract the relevant data, and analyze them for my reports.

How much easier and faster that job would be with the microcomputer. I was afraid, however, that the vice president who designed our quality control program. Stuart Gunn, would resist any changes. Besides, the existing program was the best I had ever seen, and I didn't want to give the mistaken impression that I was critical of it. I decided to try computerizing some reports quietly at home.

To explain how I proceeded, let me give you a brief description of the laboratory's operation. We analyzed ob/gyn specimens almost exclusively. Each cytotechnologist was assigned to a particular kind of work. Those in Group I examined regular specimens, while those in Group II looked at specimens from patients in the high-risk category (patients who previously had a positive result).

When the cytotechnologists found a serious abnormality they sent the slide to the pathologist for further study; less seriously abnormal specimens were rescreened by the group supervisor. For ease of management, we had five operating groups, each a mix of regular and high-risk screeners.

Quality control required a 16-page handwritten monthly report on the work of all the individual cytotechnologists. These reports were complicated to produce, but they alerted us to any problems in the lab. For example, if one cytotechnologist's results fell outside confidence intervals for two or more months, or in two or more areas of performance foa a single month, we assigned an experienced technologist to rescreen a random sampling of that person's work.

My first computer effort was a master report listing each technologist's findings, with notations as to whether those findings were above, below, or within the confidence intervals. I was able to reduce pages of laboriously penciled numbers to a single legal-size sheet. When I showed it to the vice president, he said it was a definite improvement. That was all the encouragement I needed.

At the monthly quality control meeting, the supervisors were equally enthusiastic since the report was both attractive and easier to understand. There was no resistance at all. "Why don't you have your machine produce the histograms as well?" I was asked.

This was the kind of reaction I wanted, but I was a bit nervous because I hadn't yet learned how to produce computer graphics. As it turned out, they were no problem at all, and by the next month I had reduced all eight histograms to another single page (shown in part in Figure I). The program module that produced the histograms fit into the program for the master report and used the data that I had already entered for that report. I would never again waste time sorting out data and rendering them as shaky hand-drawn lines.

The new histograms were also greeted quite favorably. "Maybe you could do something with the three-month summary," someone suggested.

This turned out to be the easiest job yet. The three-month summary module reduced two hand-written pages to one printed page (see excerpt, Figure II) and also fit into my master program.

I was especially delighted at the supervisors' ready acceptance and eagerness to participate--I needed their support and really appreciated their ideas.

Upto this point, I had been working on the programs and reports at home. Finally, I took my computer to work. Although I had reduced the time spent on quality control analysis from 12 hours to 45 minutes, I knew I could find many more laboratory applications for the computer if it were more conveniently located.

Next, I enlarged the master quality control program to produce group reports. This allowed supervisors to compare the performance of any one group to that of all the other groups. It also used the same data as the master report, so I didn't have to enter any additional data to produce it--I just added a module to the existing program.

My purpose in creating a group report was to encourage a stronger sense of responsibility among the supervisors for the members of their groups. None of the supervisors took offense. Indeed, they marveled at the new report. We posted a copy of it on the bulletin board to give the cytotechnologists specific information on how their groups were doing and what was expected from them in the way of performance.

Then I wanted to produce individual reports for each screening cytotechnologist. Each of these individual reports would include the laboratory's arithmetic means, the sceener's scores, and a notation about whether the scores were within the confidence intervals. My computer would simply write 40 separate reports and address each to the appropriate cytotechnologist.

To achieve this, I added a short module to the master program and altered the program to transfer the data from the keyboard to tape. That freed me from the necessity of inputting the data more than once. The first time, the computer collected the data and transfered it to tape. Then I entered a code that told the computer to compute the mean scores and wait for tape input. Next I rewound the tape and played it back into the computer. At this point, the computer would produce whatever report I directed, including individual reports.

Each month I distributed the individual reports to the supervisors, who passed them out to the members of their groups. For the first time, the cytotechnologists received the same statistics as the supervisors who were evaluating them.

In my group, I found that the occasion for passing out the reports was a good time to tell the cytotechnologists how well they were doing. I had previously overlooked the value of positive reinforcement in response to good performance.

Another of my monthly quality control functions was a report on the rescreening of slides previously signed out as negative. Before I put the final touches on the master program, I was still tracking the rescreening process by hand calculator. Not much time would be saved by computerizing this job, but I could improve the reports. For one thing, while I tracked the employees being rescreened, I wasn't monitoring the performance of the experienced technologists who actually did the rescreening.

Within a month, I had the rudiments of a program to check both groups and print out an attractive report. The result was improved rescreening performance.

This encouraged me to find new applications for the computer. I planned eventually to produce annual performance evaluations--actually a one-page summary of the statistics on individual cytotechnologists, as a supplement to the more subjective evaluation made by their supervisors. After that, I planned a program to generate routine memos.

It seemed that before I finished one program, two more came to mind. Next to my microscope, the computer is now my most important work tool--I even wrote this magazine article on it.

I enjoy working with my computer, but the truth is I spent only about 15 hours a month writing and running programs. I'm a cytotechnologist--most of my work is in cytology, and I plan to keep it that way. As long as my employer doesn't supply the computer, I feel free to spend as much or as little time using it as I choose.

In any case, the cost was very small. The initial outlay was about $1,200 for the microcomputer and printer. After more than three years without any need for servicing, the cost averaged about $28 a month.

I know that the computer was worth the investment because I've moved to a new job with broader responsibilities and a substantial salary increase--and what most impressed my new employer during the job interview was my demonstration of the computerized quality control programs.

Before I changed jobs, I trained my replacement to use and modify the quality control program I had written. She didn't own a computer herself, so I let her use mine. The first four months, my previous employer paid me $50 a month for machine time. When this became inconvenient for me, I finally sold the computer to her for about half the price I had paid.

Yes, I have a new microcomputer (a Sanyo with two disk drives and a 256K memory), and yes, it's at work in my new lab. I will use the Sanyo's high-resolution color graphics to produce titles and graphs for educational videotapes planned by the lab's medical director and myself.

I have attempted to show how a microcomputer became an integral part of my life. As you can see, most of my work problems are unique, but that may be the most important thing to remember about the small computer--its uses are as varied as the people who use it.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McLean, William J.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Sep 1, 1984
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