Background: Entering data on case report forms and subsequently digitizing them in electronic media is the traditional way to maintain a record keeping system in field studies. Direct data entry using an electronic device avoids this two-step process. It is gaining in popularity and has replaced the paper-based data entry system in many studies. We report our experiences with paper- and PDA-based data collection during a fever surveillance study in Pemba Island, Zanzibar, Tanzania.
Methods: Data were collected on a 14-page case report paper form in the first period of the study. The case report paper forms were then replaced with handheld computers (personal digital assistants or PDAs). The PDAs were used for screening and clinical data collection, including a rapid assessment of patient eligibility, real time errors, and inconsistency checking.
Results: A comparison of paper-based data collection with PDA data collection showed that direct data entry via PDA was faster and 25% cheaper. Data was more accurate (7% versus 1% erroneous data) and omission did not occur with electronic data collection. Delayed data turnaround times and late error detections in the paper-based system which made error corrections difficult were avoided using electronic data collection.
Conclusions: Electronic data collection offers direct data entry at the initial point of contact. It has numerous advantages and has the potential to replace paper-based data collection in the field. The availability of information and communication technologies for direct data transfer has the potential to improve the conduct of public health research in resource-poor settings.