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Computers and nursing didn't always mix

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Some 35 years ago I wrote an article called ‘Computers in Nursing’, which was published in a national nursing journal. The aim of this article was to familiarise nurses with what computers were and how they worked.

It discussed binary or ”base two” mathematics. It explained what ‘bits’ and ‘bytes’ were and how an 8 bit byte gave you the possibility of identifying 256 letters, numbers or symbols. It identified computer languages, or P.O.Ls, such as ‘Basic’, ‘Fortran’, ‘Cobal’ and ‘Ada’, which were then necessary in order to communicate with computers.

These were in the days before computers got smarter and learned human languages.

At the time, I advocated the use of computers in hospitals seeing them as merely a useful tool to assist nurses in their duties. Not, of course, as useful as a thermometer for example, but helpful none the less.

”I had little idea of how ubiquitous and essential computers would become”

At that time, I had little idea of how ubiquitous and essential computers would become in this and almost all other walks of life.

I worked in a large teaching hospital at the time and the first computer the hospital bought could take 12 pages of type before the memory was full and you needed to download it to a floppy disc.

”This computer had far less memory than a modern child’s toy”

This computer had far less memory than a modern child’s toy and it was quickly realised how inadequate it was. Memory was measured in kilobytes (102) whereas today it is in Gigabytes (108). It is possible that, in the lifetimes of nurses practicing today it might be measured in Brontobytes (1026), or even Geopbytes (which incidentally is (1029 ).

The style of nursing practised today would have been impossible in the pre-digital age for two reasons:

  • Firstly, the information required would have been difficult to obtain in the quantities needed.
    Electronic machinery has markedly reduced the time taken to perform basic nursing duties. A patient’s temperature taken with a mercury thermometer took the best part of three minutes; this had now been reduced to as many seconds.
    Electronic sphygmomanometers have much reduced the time taken to take a blood pressure reading, and blood oxygen levels were seldom measured as it took several days to obtain a result.
  • Secondly, without computers, this wealth of information would have been difficult to recall and impossible to manage. We would have drowned in a sea of paperwork.
    Information gathering requires two attributes: it needs to be able to record and recall data quickly.
    The computer is excellent for both. In manual filing collating information is comparatively easy, but time consuming, recalling it when needed was a different proposition.

Nurses now take computers for granted, most have known no other way and think that this is how things have always been done.

”There may be some other technical advance in the future that will revolutionise nursing to a similar extent”

But, there are two things that we need to remember. Computers have changed the way we nurse more than any other factor since the time of Florence Nightingale; and also, we shouldn’t be complaisant, there may be some other technical advance in the future that will revolutionise nursing to a similar extent.

I cannot imagine what this advance might be, but then, although I recognised the rise of the computer early, I grossly underestimated its impact on nursing.

Edward Sumner

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • Edward, setting the garbage of social media aside, I agree that IT has become ubiquitous for nurses, but who is all this information for? What do they do with it? Has it empowered better patient care?

    I would feel better if I saw nurses as users of information, not just gatherers of other people's data. I would be less sceptical if I saw current IT contributing anything to better care, research and practice. And I'd hang flags up if I saw managers and policymakers responding to real information about patient outcomes!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Setting the garbage of social media aside, I agree that IT has become ubiquitous for nurses, but who is all this information for? What do they do with it? Has it empowered better patient care?

    I would feel better if I saw nurses as users of information, not just gatherers of other people's data. I would be less sceptical if I saw current IT contributing anything to better care, research and practice. And I'd hang flags up if I saw managers and policymakers responding to real information about patient outcomes!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

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