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