Don’t be a Luddite

Computers are now an accepted part of everyday working life
so stop burying your head in the sand and learn to embrace them, welcoming the
advantages they bring.  By Kate Rouy

 

For those of us not brought up with computers as a fact of
everyday life, the mere word can be enough to strike terror into the very soul.
But within occupational health, the Occupational Health Advisers has had to
face up to the fear and live with the spectre of the computerised office. For
many, of course, especially those relative newcomers to the profession, working
with an efficient computer software package presents few problems. And as a
storage solution, a record collator and information provider the computer has
indeed proved a boon to those OH departments that utilise new technology.
However, as computer software and technology become ever-more sophisticated,
there are still many within OH who have yet to see the positive advantages that
computerisation can bring. Indeed, the profession has been criticised as being
slow to lock into new technology.

 

Not so, according to the OH team at the Unipart Group of
Companies. This independent logistics, automotive parts and accessories company
is one example of how large-scale investment in, and use of, new technology has
completely changed the way an OH department can operate.

 

Technological developments at the Oxford-based organisation
include the establishment of a health and wellbeing intranet site, as well the
introduction of "de-stress" software with which employees can test
their responsiveness to stress through an interactive computer test. And
investment in a computerised OH database has enabled the OH team to provide
efficient sickness absence data, and subsequently identify trends and develop
intervention methods.

 

Those within the OH team recognise the importance of
computer skills to OHAs.

 

"IT skills are becoming a must in all of the
professions and occupational health is no exception," says a spokeswoman
for Unipart.

 

"Within our OH department, we typically use computing
skills for communication, record keeping, presentations, graphic design,
administration and spread sheets."

 

Computers can make a real difference

 

Sharon Horan, OH manager at AON Occupational Health agrees
that a basic understanding of computer skills is necessary and that most OHAs
have that.

 

"E-mail is an essential part of working life and is
just one aspect of IT, together with database technology and the Internet, that
will have an impact on the provision of OH services," she says.

 

She also points out the advantages of IT knowledge to those
OHAs who have a number of sites within their remit.

 

"A growing number of OHAs are using laptops to input
and access information while working at customer sites.

 

"Another major benefit of computerised databases is the
facility to analyse the information and monitor trends in the health of the
workforce," she adds.

 

"This is an area where IT has the potential to make a
major impact – and we are already beginning to see that happen."

 

Kenny Dearlove, OH nurse at Aventis CropScience UK, a
Norwich-based agrochemical company, says the use of computer software "has
become central to the way we work, in a number of ways".

 

In a basic format, as a record of treatment advice and
outcome, the software replaces paper records, which can be illegible, bulky,
and difficult to cross reference, he says.

 

"The software also allows us to analyse our work as OH
practitioners and to measure outcomes, and from that we can examine
trends," he continues.

 

"At the end of each year we produce health surveillance
programme results and these then allow us to ask questions about what we are
doing, whether it is worth while and to allocate our resources
accordingly."

 

Dearlove’s department has been using the Warwick IC Opas
system since 1995, and is involved with the company in further developments of
the package.

 

"The system has evolved. We have a lot of experience of
using it, and it is very straightforward if you have a logical mind," he
says.

 

Warwick IC Systems managing director Mike Barton says the
company has worked in close cooperation with anumber of OH users to develop a
system that has continued to evolve in its 10 years of development.

 

"We work with number of companies from small
independent OH providers to huge organisations such as Glaxo and Esso," he
says.

 

"The system is straightforward, our clients receive
adequate training, and we configure each system to meet their requirements. We
are updating our systems all the time."

 

He believes the fear factor is less prevalent within OH
departments than previously.

 

Computers offer an invaluable management tool

 

Dearlove agrees that as a management tool, the data
collation capabilities of a software package have proved invaluable.

 

"For example, we can now show managers what sickness
absence has cost them over the last year," he says.

 

"Managers love the bottom line and now we can give them
reports showing exactly what it is costing. It has also increased the profile
of occupational health within the company. I can’t remember how we managed
without it."

 

Horan agrees that computer technology has enhanced the
presentation of information outside the OH department.

 

"Management reports may well be delivered to the client
as a PowerPoint presentation. Increasingly clients are expecting more
sophisticated presentations as part of health education programmes."

 

When it comes to choosing a software package, OH departments
are definite about their criteria.

 

"The minimum that we would expect of any new software
package is that it is user-friendly, speedy, requires minimal training, is good
value for money and has low cost maintenance," says the Unipart
spokeswoman.

 

"Additional criteria would be its ability to meet the
department’s needs, for example, personal details, absenteeism, health
surveillance and results."

 

Recruitment has also become an area where computer
knowledge, albeit limited, can be a crucial skill for any candidate for
employment.

 

"As a company, Unipart utilises technology in all areas
of its business and it would be necessary for any occupational health advisers
working for us to have a basic computer literacy," says the spokeswoman.
However, we are fortunate that we have extensive in-house training available
for all our employees, should we find a potential employee who did not have the
requisite computer skills."

 

And, she adds, the OH team has not experienced any real
evidence to suggest occupational health advisers are particularly wary of using
computers.

 

"Any indication that computer technology is not being
quickly picked up within the industry may be due to the cost of investing in
this technology rather than any general reluctance within the industry."

 

"Some might be a bit scared," says Dearlove, who
adds that when recruiting he would encourage some level of computer awareness.

 

"But we do have a lot of backup from our software
provider and we also have an IT department on site."

 

Horan says that she finds that most OHAs are now able to
offer some basic software experience, such as e-mail, word processing as well
as database technology.

 

"There is also a growing understanding about the potential
of IT to improve OH provision,’ she adds.

 

"We are equally interested in whether potential
recruits can show an understanding of the impact of the computer in the work
environment."

 

So has the OH profession been slow to respond to the IT
challenge?

 

Yes and no, argues Horan. "Most people use computer
technology as part of their everyday working lives, to collect e-mail, make
appointments, keep records and so on," she says.

 

"However, the OH sector as a whole has been slow to
expand the role of computer technology in general health matters in the
workplace. Computer technology has the potential to make health promotion a
fun, informative experience for the workforce, but the UK is still in the Dark
Ages in this area."

 

Choosing software

 

– Look for a package that is user-friendly and doesn’t
require huge amounts of training.

 

– Value for money is also important. Some companies may be
reluctant to invest in technology for OH if it is too costly.

 

– Be prepared to shop around and make sure that your
requirements are understood. It is no good spending large sums of money on a
package that does not meet your needs – recording personal health details,
absenteeism, health surveillance and recalls, for example.

 

– Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the software
providers. You are making a potentially major investment in their equipment,
and you need to be confident before you take any steps towards purchasing.

 

– Talk to colleagues and friends in other
companies/organisations and find out about their experiences. You can learn
from their mistakes and benefit from their successes.

 

– Make sure that the software house you buy from can provide
you with back up in case of any problems and has good maintenance provision.
You will inevitably have teething troubles and you need to know that you have
support at the end of the phone or in person.

 

– "Above all, software should be user-friendly,"
says Sharon Horan, OH manager at AON Occupational Health. "This covers all
aspects of the software from ease of access to the ability to interrogate data
where relevant and of course, if a system is graphically interesting, that is
always attractive."

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