MIT graduate student Joaquin Blaya developed a method for tracking test results required from drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB) patients through personal digital assistants (PDAs). Blaya’s idea stemmed from the time-consuming job of tracking the numerous test results required over the 2-year treatment period for patients with drug-resistant TB, particularly in developing countries where health workers rely on paper copies.

The project launched in Lima, Peru, where the researchers found that equipping health care workers with PDAs to record data dropped the average time for patients’ test results to reach their doctors from 23 days to 8 days.

"You can monitor patients in a more timely way. It also prevents results from getting lost," says Blaya, a PhD student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

Working with faculty members from HST and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Blaya launched the PDA project in Lima. He also worked closely with the Peruvian sister organization of Partners in Health, Socios en Salud. "The way to solve healthcare problems is by involving the community," says Blaya.

The old patient tracking system required a team of four health care workers to visit more than 100 health care centers and labs twice a week to record patient test results on paper. The health care workers would then return to their main office to transcribe those results onto two sets of forms per patient—one for the doctors and one for the health care administrators. This process took an average of more than 3 weeks per patient with the added potential for error due to information copied by hand multiple times.

With the new system, health care workers enter all of the lab data into their handheld devices, using medical software designed for this purpose. When the workers return to their office, they sync the PDAs with their computers.

Peruvian health care workers enthusiastically embraced the program, which started in two of Lima’s districts and has now been expanded to all five. In addition to saving time, the handheld devices are also more cost effective than the paper-based system, the researchers reported in the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.

The work was reported in the online edition of the International Journal of Infectious Diseases.