About four years ago, in order to learn about microcomputers, Ibought a Radio Shack Model I with tape drive and 48K of memory. Theunit was on sale, and it was perfect for my needs. Within a year, I hadlearned to program in BASIC and put together a moderate of personalprograms.
It didn’t take long to realize how useful the computer wouldbe at the independent cancer screening lab where I worked. I had chargeof quality control for the lab–more than 40 cytotechnologists–and alsodirectly supervised eight cytotechnologists. Although we had a mainframe computer, it was fully utilized forbilling clients and reporting test results. The mainframe also producedraw statistics on cytotechnologists’ findings, but these werespread out over 50 pages of accordion-fold printouts. I had to comb through the printouts, extract the relevant data, and analyze them formy reports.
How much easier and faster that job would be with themicrocomputer. I was afraid, however, that the vice president whodesigned our quality control program. Stuart Gunn, would resist anychanges. Besides, the existing program was the best I had ever seen,and I didn’t want to give the mistaken impression that I wascritical of it. I decided to try computerizing some reports quietly athome. To explain how I proceeded, let me give you a brief description ofthe laboratory’s operation.
We analyzed ob/gyn specimens almostexclusively. Each cytotechnologist was assigned to a particular kind ofwork. Those in Group I examined regular specimens, while those in GroupII looked at specimens from patients in the high-risk category (patientswho previously had a positive result).
When the cytotechnologists found a serious abnormality they sentthe slide to the pathologist for further study; less seriously abnormalspecimens were rescreened by the group supervisor. For ease ofmanagement, we had five operating groups, each a mix of regular andhigh-risk screeners. Quality control required a 16-page handwritten monthly report onthe work of all the individual cytotechnologists. These reports werecomplicated to produce, but they alerted us to any problems in the lab.For example, if one cytotechnologist’s results fell outsideconfidence intervals for two or more months, or in two or more areas ofperformance foa a single month, we assigned an experienced technologistto rescreen a random sampling of that person’s work.
My first computer effort was a master report listing eachtechnologist’s findings, with notations as to whether thosefindings were above, below, or within the confidence intervals. I wasable to reduce pages of laboriously penciled numbers to a singlelegal-size sheet. When I showed it to the vice president, he said itwas a definite improvement. That was all the encouragement I needed.
At the monthly quality control meeting, the supervisors wereequally enthusiastic since the report was both attractive and easier tounderstand. There was no resistance at all. “Why don’t youhave your machine produce the histograms as well?” I was asked. This was the kind of reaction I wanted, but I was a bit nervousbecause I hadn’t yet learned how to produce computer graphics. Asit turned out, they were no problem at all, and by the next month I hadreduced all eight histograms to another single page (shown in part inFigure I). The program module that produced the histograms fit into theprogram for the master report and used the data that I had alreadyentered for that report. I would never again waste time sorting outdata and rendering them as shaky hand-drawn lines. The new histograms were also greeted quite favorably.
“Maybeyou could do something with the three-month summary,” someonesuggested. This turned out to be the easiest job yet. The three-month summarymodule 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’ readyacceptance and eagerness to participate–I needed their support andreally appreciated their ideas. Upto this point, I had been working on the programs and reports athome.
Finally, I took my computer to work. Although I had reduced thetime spent on quality control analysis from 12 hours to 45 minutes, Iknew I could find many more laboratory applications for the computer ifit were more conveniently located. Next, I enlarged the master quality control program to producegroup reports. This allowed supervisors to compare the performance ofany one group to that of all the other groups. It also used the samedata as the master report, so I didn’t have to enter any additionaldata to produce it–I just added a module to the existing program. My purpose in creating a group report was to encourage a strongersense of responsibility among the supervisors for the members of theirgroups. None of the supervisors took offense.
Indeed, they marveled atthe new report. We posted a copy of it on the bulletin board to givethe cytotechnologists specific information on how their groups weredoing and what was expected from them in the way of performance. Then I wanted to produce individual reports for each screeningcytotechnologist. Each of these individual reports would include thelaboratory’s arithmetic means, the sceener’s scores, and anotation about whether the scores were within the confidence intervals.My computer would simply write 40 separate reports and address each tothe appropriate cytotechnologist. To achieve this, I added a short module to the master program andaltered the program to transfer the data from the keyboard to tape.
Thatfreed me from the necessity of inputting the data more than once. Thefirst time, the computer collected the data and transfered it to tape.Then I entered a code that told the computer to compute the mean scoresand wait for tape input. Next I rewound the tape and played it backinto the computer. At this point, the computer would produce whateverreport 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 supervisorswho were evaluating them. In my group, I found that the occasion for passing out the reportswas a good time to tell the cytotechnologists how well they were doing.I had previously overlooked the value of positive reinforcement inresponse to good performance. Another of my monthly quality control functions was a report on therescreening of slides previously signed out as negative. Before I putthe final touches on the master program, I was still tracking therescreening process by hand calculator. Not much time would be saved bycomputerizing this job, but I could improve the reports. For one thing,while I tracked the employees being rescreened, I wasn’t monitoringthe performance of the experienced technologists who actually did therescreening. Within a month, I had the rudiments of a program to check bothgroups and print out an attractive report.
The result was improvedrescreening performance. This encouraged me to find new applications for the computer. Iplanned eventually to produce annual performance evaluations–actually aone-page summary of the statistics on individual cytotechnologists, as asupplement 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 tomind. Next to my microscope, the computer is now my most important worktool–I even wrote this magazine article on it. I enjoy working with my computer, but the truth is I spent onlyabout 15 hours a month writing and running programs. I’m acytotechnologist–most of my work is in cytology, and I plan to keep itthat way. As long as my employer doesn’t supply the computer, Ifeel 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 yearswithout any need for servicing, the cost averaged about $28 a month.
I know that the computer was worth the investment because I’vemoved to a new job with broader responsibilities and a substantialsalary increase–and what most impressed my new employer during the jobinterview was my demonstration of the computerized quality controlprograms. Before I changed jobs, I trained my replacement to use and modifythe quality control program I had written. She didn’t own acomputer herself, so I let her use mine. The first four months, myprevious employer paid me $50 a month for machine time. When thisbecame inconvenient for me, I finally sold the computer to her for abouthalf the price I had paid. Yes, I have a new microcomputer (a Sanyo with two disk drives and a256K memory), and yes, it’s at work in my new lab. I will use theSanyo’s high-resolution color graphics to produce titles and graphsfor educational videotapes planned by the lab’s medical directorand myself.
I have attempted to show how a microcomputer became an integralpart 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 smallcomputer–its uses are as varied as the people who use it.