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Open Access Research article

A review of randomized controlled trials comparing the effectiveness of hand held computers with paper methods for data collection

Shannon J Lane1, Nancy M Heddle12, Emmy Arnold1 and Irwin Walker1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Medicine, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

2 Canadian Blood Services, Hamilton, Canada

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BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 2006, 6:23  doi:10.1186/1472-6947-6-23

Published: 31 May 2006



Handheld computers are increasingly favoured over paper and pencil methods to capture data in clinical research.


This study systematically identified and reviewed randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that compared the two methods for self-recording and reporting data, and where at least one of the following outcomes was assessed: data accuracy; timeliness of data capture; and adherence to protocols for data collection.


A comprehensive key word search of NLM Gateway's database yielded 9 studies fitting the criteria for inclusion. Data extraction was performed and checked by two of the authors. None of the studies included all outcomes. The results overall, favor handheld computers over paper and pencil for data collection among study participants but the data are not uniform for the different outcomes. Handheld computers appear superior in timeliness of receipt and data handling (four of four studies) and are preferred by most subjects (three of four studies). On the other hand, only one of the trials adequately compared adherence to instructions for recording and submission of data (handheld computers were superior), and comparisons of accuracy were inconsistent between five studies.


Handhelds are an effective alternative to paper and pencil modes of data collection; they are faster and were preferred by most users.