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Word processing with a microcomputer.

One of the most popular laboratory uses for a microcomputer is word processing. Procedure manuals, correspondence, forms, manuals, management reports, bills for testing--all can be sped to letter-perfect completion.

Word processors are programs that permit a personal computer to function as an electronic typewriter. But there are major differences. The results do not appear immediately on paper. They first go up on a video display monitor, while the text is stored in the computer's memory or on a diskette. Since the text can be amended before printing, word processors are also called editors.

Why not use a typewriter? Perhaps it will be easier if I explain the way I use our lab's word processor--an IBM personal computer with a WordStar (MicroPro International, San Rafael, Calif.) program.

Much of the work in writing, whether it's a short memo or a 50-page report, actually takes the form of rewriting. I used to pen my initial drafts on long legal sheets, double-spaced for room to add words or change thoughts. I moved paragraphs around by cutting out sections and taping them to sheets where I thought they belonged. With the word processor, I do exactly the same thing in a fraction of the time, electronically.

I type the text, double-spaced on the screen. I go back and insert words by keyboarding them in at the appropriate location. I mark the beginning and end of paragraphs and tell the computer where to move them. If I'm not sure I want to use a paragraph but can't bear to part with my timeless prose, I can press keys to copy it and file it on a diskette.

When I finally have a text that I like, I can look at it in different formats before it is printed out. The text can be displayed on the screen in block form or ragged edge, single or double spaced, in short or long pages. I can create blank areas that leave room for illustrations. These and other options quickly parade by for acceptance or rejection.

When I last handwrote and edited an article of this length, it took about 15 hours. On the word processor, the final version is ready in six hours.

Time saved in the laboratory, where the phrasing is frequently cut and dried, may be even more dramatic. We can update a procedure manual in less than 10 per cent of the time it used to take.

In our workshop training sessions, we show technologists how to command the microcomputer to go through a procedure several pages long and change the name of a reagent that may be mentioned in 40 places. The revisions are done in about four minutes, and less than three minutes later we have a hard copy.

Word processing also frees up a lot of the space customarily allocated to storage of paper records. Laboratory files quickly become large and cumbersome. A year's worth of one supervisor's correspondence can be several inches thick. The same amount in a word processing file would not fill a single diskette. And having records stored on diskettes allows for more efficient search and retrieval of material.

Many word processing programs have a feature called mail merge. This combines a file of addresses with a text and is particularly adaptable to billing letters (varying the text for each client) or reports to a long list of physicians. Mail merge can also be used for newsletters of memos that go to many readers.

Ease of copying and reusing files is another word processor advantage. Often a lab finds that its previous forms and letters may need only slight alterations to be used in new circumstances. This may be the case, for example, when a blood bank sends recruitment letters to potential donors or a personnel department is updating staff attendance at continuing education programs. Only a paragraph or a section of the letter or form might need revision. If the material is filled on the word processor, it can easily be copied and edited with a few keystrokes and printed out brand new.

Sometimes a document on file is just fine but needs an addition or insertion from another document. That's accomplished with a feature known as boilerplating. It's indispensable when writing or updating laboratory procedure manuals. After a basic format or outline has been created and a procedure written, sections that apply to other procedures as well can be copied from the file and inserted as needed.

Up to this point, I hope I have made word processors sound useful. There are some drawbacks, however. They are not that simple to operate--some training is necessary. Users must learn a set of keyboard commands to control the program, move text, erase mistakes, and save files. How easily it's learned depends upon how comfortable the individual is with a computer. None that word processors will not convert ham-handed typists into keyboard whizzes, nor can they improve writing style.

In one to eight hours, someone familiar with a typewriter can learn enough about editing programs to accomplish real work. The time required varies with the complexity of the program and the clarity of the training manual.

What should a laboratory buy in order to build a good system? Here's a short shopping list: a microcomputer with sufficient memory to handle files, appropriate peripherals (printer, disk drives), and writing and editing programs.

The choice of microcomputer is a function of financial resources and the computer experience and preferences of the people who will be using it. Visit dealers and try several models. Let the others in the lab who will be using the equipment do the same. Look at the various programs available. There are reviews of almost all the more popular programs in such computer magazines as Byte and PC World. As for demonstrations, most dealers will show you the features most often used. It's a good idea to have some specific questions, but don't expect the dealer to be an expert on all the software.

If there will be several microcomputers in your department or if several departments intend to use word processing, it may be advantageous to select the same hardware and software. That way, the lab can soon develop a team of experienced operators who in turn can train newcomers and form user groups. These groups swap information about features or newly discovered capabilities and even program faults. In addition, diskette files can be shared on like systems.

The printer must be compatible with your microcomputer and its programs. Our laboratory has an Epson FX-80 dot matrix printer to go with the IBM.

Dot matrix is the most common printing method, but it may not appear "finished" enough for official correspondence. For example, a lette seeking to soothe an angry physician could have the opposite effect if the clinician thinks he is getting a computerized form letter. When the work must look like it has been typewritten, you have two choices--get a secretary to retype the computer printout or buy a letter-quality printer. The latter is more expensive--and much slower--than a dot matrix printer, but several work groups can jointly purchase it for shared use.

Among the handier optional programs are some that check spelling, such as MicroPro's Spell Star. It can catch most typing and orthographic errors, such as "hte" for "the," but not "of" for "if." These dictionaries range in size from 10,000 to 40,000 words. Although they usually do not include technical terms, some specialized dictionaries are available. In addition, most spelling programs will allow adding words to the list, so each department or group of users can build a dictionary specific to its own needs.

Another feature to consider is a keyboard enhancer. This customizes the keyboard by redefining keys or establishing a series of keystrokes for a new command. We use the Prokey enhancer (Rosesoft, Seattle, Wash.).

Doesn't all this beat typing?
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
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Author:Barbieri, Lee A.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:May 1, 1984
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