Mental health professionals and educators who use a traditional clipboard and paper to record observations of children with autism can soon upgrade to a portable computer that can tap the information superhighway for faster, more accurate diagnoses and treatments. The new system is believed to be the first of its kind.
"This system will tremendously increase our efficiency and make a big contribution to researchers of autism worldwide," said Dr. Robert Cohen, director of the Autism Center of Virginia and vice chairman of Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Psychiatry.
The "Virtual Clipboard," as it's called, is a Tablet PC-based software application that allows psychologists and other treatment and educational staff to instantly file and retrieve patient information to and from a central database using wireless technology and the Internet. All data captured can be used immediately to help assess a patient's progress and treatment program. It was developed as a class project by three undergraduate Information Systems students in VCU's School of Business: Matthew Morton, Matt Nuckols and Chris Stewart. The students worked with researchers at the Autism Center and other institutions to design the application.
Tasks that now take 45 minutes can be performed in as little as 30 seconds with the Virtual Clipboard. "It will allow us to quickly gather a lot of information about a patient's performance," said Cohen. Applied Behavioral Analysis autism treatment is extremely data rich and labor intensive. Many assessments are recorded on paper and never used because they must be entered manually into databases, which can take months.
The system allows users to collect data, build and implement customized evaluation forms, and make reports from the collected data. It has potential benefits for treatment and research, and can monitor system users and components. Sensitive patient information is hidden to ensure patient confidentiality and computer literacy is not required because the application is modeled on the old paper-based assessment system.
Other research areas can benefit too, said Morton, the team's project leader. The system's framework can be modified for virtually any observational discipline, such as marketing research, land surveys and doctors' offices.
In May, the students' invention won second prize in a regional technology competition sponsored by Microsoft Corp., which qualified them to go on to the national contest in San Diego, Calif.
"This was a very worthy cause," said Dr. Richard T. Redmond, the students' professor and chair of VCU's Department of Information Systems. "There's so much data collection in autism research that it turns psychologists into clerks. The Virtual Clipboard will let them be psychologists again."
The project was sponsored by Markel Corp., a Richmond-based insurance company whose chairman and CEO, Alan Kirshner, helped to establish the Autism Center in 1998 with the VCU Department of Psychiatry. The company was seeking a better way to record patient data at the Autism Center through technology.