DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?
At last - software for hypochondriacs. John Gilbert delivers the diagnosis.
WHEN people think about the various types of computer software they usually divide them into three main categories - games, educational and business. The classification is also normally in that order.
The Eastmead Medical series, how ever, fits into none of the three main categories completely. It could be placed in the educational field but it is also of use in the home and even in the surgery, or so the manufacturers claim, but its educational value is questionable.
A team of three worked on the development of the packages - two programmers and a successful medical author. That is made apparent by the textbook style of the narration on the screen, a style which invites comparison with medical reference books.
The screen layout of the text in each of the programs accommodates the reader in every way. There is a space between every line of text which should help the reader to avoid eyestrain. There is also an insurance measure incorporated into every screen so that you do not move to the next screen by pressing a key accidentally.
The only way to access the next screen is to press the key specified by the program, which is usually on the bottom row of the keyboard. Accidents can still happen if you lean against the keyboard but they are made less likely by that safety measure.
The usual psychological techniques of learning are applied in the packages. The most successful is the asking and answering of questions combined with a period of tuition.
It is difficult to spot the technique in the first of the series, How Long Have You Got? but it is there. On the first run through the package, which consists of one program, you will be asked a number of questions regarding health.
Once the program has finished and you have learned how tong you can expect to live the computer will invite you to re-run and look at those questions with which you had difficulty and those which you answered incorrectly. In that case the questions would help you to analyse the problem areas of your life so far as health is concerned.
First Aid uses the questioning technique in a different manner. The program performs a diagnosis of what to do in situations where medical help is needed urgently. The questions prompt the user to enter a yes or no answer. The computer then poses a supplementary question which follows from the first. The string of questions, each going a little further than the first, will end with a diagnosis.
The diagnosis report may provide a direct form of action or may give the unhelpful response of 'go and seek medical help immediately'.
The Complete Guide to Medicine, the final part of the medical trilogy, does not use the questioning technique very much. It provides a run-down of reproduction and the growth of a baby, together with information on internal organs. The questions in that piece of software are mainly for switching between parts of the program and menus.
The other aid to learning which is apparent in the programs, except for How Long Have You Got? is the sectionalising of information.
The technique is most noticeable in The Complete Guide to Medicine. The authors have obviously spent a long time working out which part of the program should be first and how to split the information which has to go into the package into several 48K portions. The split seems to have worked fairly well with the medical programs, although long waits for a specific part of a package, such as the 'guide', can cause irritation, especially if there is a loading error.
Most of the sections take several minutes to load as they contain large amounts of information. When working through a program all the information may not be accessed at one sitting and it is possible to criticise the program on those grounds.
The processing of answers given by the user also uses program space but as the options to most questions are limited, the decision-making parts of the software are compact. Although the programs are written in Basic and not machine code, the computer response to a user input is extremely fast.
Having described the basic techniques of how the programs are structured, let us consider how each of the techniques works in relation to each of the packages.
How Long have You Got? could certainly induce stress and could even shorten the life of the 'victim' who undertakes the test.
The user has to answer questions such as 'Do you smoke?' Are you under stress?' and 'What sex are you?' The screen display shows the number of years which, statistically, you could expect to live, barring accidents or heart attacks at your computer.
As you answer the questions and, depending on your answers, the computer will put the 'mean' age up or down a year or two. Answering questions positively will in most cases decrease your expectation of life. For instance, an affirmative response to 'Do you smoke?' may take two years off your life score. The same is true of an affirmative answer to 'Do you have too much responsibility?' Your predicted lifespan is displayed at the end of the question section, although that is a rough estimate. Obviously, the program is light-hearted in content, although all the results are based on knowledge gained from statistics. Unfortunately the cassette insert for the package does not say on what the statistics were based or from which country.
The questions involved in the test seem sensible enough and it is easy to see how the resulting life expectancy is calculated, yet they are vague and there is only one which takes into account the male/female sex difference. That is not a major criticism of the product, although it makes one wonder if all eventualities have been taken into account.
The First Aid package deals with the kind of emergencies which happen in the home. The contents include dealing with bleeding, breathlessness, poisoning, fainting and convulsions although again not every eventuality is taken into consideration. For that reason you must ponder whether a textbook on the subject might be a better source of knowledge. After all, in an emergency you would find it easier to skim through the pages of a book rather than load a program for a consultation.
The last criticism poses the question as to the way in which the package should be used. If it is to be used in the classroom it is not sufficient to stand alone. At best it could be used only as a teacher's aid or learning prop. If that is not the case, surely the manufacturer cannot expect someone to LOAD the program while an accident victim lies on the floor. The package is not so portable as a textbook which can be carried anywhere and used for accidents away from home.
One major criticism of the First Aid package is that in many cases it gives the diagnosis 'Seek the advice of your doctor urgently'. That is not very helpful, as first aid is often applied while waiting for expert medical help; and you could buy a first aid book for half the price of the package and it would contain more information.
The Complete Guide to Medicine has, to say the least, an over-expressed title. It is not possible, even in textbooks of several hundred pages, to provide a complete guide.
A variety of subjects is covered in the package, although none is as in-depth as they could be. In the section on reproduction, the information starts with the sperm entering the woman. No mention of the man's part in the act is mentioned.
Other subjects covered include human anatomy and physiology, nutrition, how to cope with stress, emergencies, home care and nursing advice.
The authors have also included graphics in the sections on the body and its functions and those can only be described as funny and, with the Spectrum graphics facilities, rather sketchy.
The authors are certainly not artists, as the graphics show square heads and strange-looking limbs. For a package which is intended to cover medicine, one of the sciences, the graphics are not sufficiently accurate.
The Complete Guide to Medicine and First Aid are indicative of a distressing trend in software, as manufacturers and programmers attempt to find substitutes for the written word, working on the assumption presumably that anything a book can do, the computer can do better. In this instance that assumption is unfounded, as textbooks on the subject would be less superficial and contain illustrations considerably more illuminating. The access time alone should make users think twice before loading such software.
If the packages have an advantage over textbooks it is the provision of information in a palatable and amusing form for people who enjoy using computers and do not enjoy reading. How Long Have You Got? according to that criterion is the best of the three packages as it is the most fun to use.