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The history of the computer can be traced back to 500 B.C when the Babylonians, for simple mathematical calculations, first used the abacus. However the present form of the abacus did not make its appearance till 1300 A.D in China. After going through a series of changes down the years, computers can be found virtually everywhere from our automobiles to mobile telephones, from household products like the microwave oven to industrial production lines.

The computing era as we know it kicked off in 1951 with the release of the first commercially successful electronic computer known as UNIVAC 1. Computers produced around this period till the mid 1950s were known as the "First generation" computers. They were characterised by being very huge, computers in this era would take up entire floors in buildings, and awkward to use. Very few of them were made and their use in healthcare were limited to research labs and were used to develop medical diagnostic equipment for the processing if signals and images.

The period between 1959 and 1964 saw the "Second Generation" computers come to front. They were based on having transistors being built in them, reducing their size compared to their predecessors and using new programming languages developed during that period which made them easier to use. These led to the computers moving into the hospital environment where they used mainly for hospital accounting and inventory, and patient billing.


In the mid 1960s, the "Third Generation" computers were introduced and they offered increased computing power thanks to the use of integrated circuits. This along with the improvement in communication technology heralded the beginning of the Hospital Information System (HIS).

In the United States, health organisations, spurned on by the government funding and the availability of relational database management systems (RDBMS), sought out ways to harness the improving computing power to create sophisticated information systems. MUMPS (Massachusetts General Hospital Utility Multi-Programming System) and GEMISCH (Generalized Medical Information System for Community Health) are two of the systems that were designed during this period.

The era of the "Fourth Generation" computers started about 1972, and it is in this era that massive improvement were made in computer technology. The driving force behind this push in the advancements made started with the introduction of the microcomputer in 1974.

Microcomputers (PCs and Macintosh) were much smaller than any of the earlier computers produced and were no longer beyond the reach of small to medium sized organisation that wanted to get on the computer bandwagon. Now computers can be found in so many offices and homes all around the world.

Till date "Fourth Generation" computers have been making strides in not only getting smaller (portable microcomputers and handheld computers) but also increasing in processing power. This increase has led in to an increase in the sophistication of software programs run on them and invariably an increase in the functionality of health information systems (HIS).

HIS are now used in carrying out almost all functions within a hospital (patient appointment and staff scheduling, electronic prescriptions, decision support, insurance billing and electronic medical records). This functionality is also available on a smaller scale to smaller healthcare organisations like the family doctor’s practice.

Computers are also used in other facets of healthcare such non-invasive procedures (CAT scans, ultrasound and MRI), Computer Aided Learning (CAL) and automatic delivery systems.

The 1990s also witnessed the rise the use of network computing by healthcare organisation due to the improvements made in computing and communications technology, more so as this also brought about the shaping of the Internet as we know it now.

Healthcare will continue to have a relationship with computer technology as more ways would be sought out to harness its power to not only improve the delivery of its services but also control costs especially in this period of increasing pressure on the world’s limited resources.

Computers, in terms of size, processing power and functionality can be categorized into the following:



International Medical Informatics Association
American Medical Informatics Association
UK Health Informatics Society
Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society

Knowledge Center
Biomedical Informatics
Health Informatics
Healthcare Technologies
Hospital Information Systems

Computer Hardware Topics
Mainframe Computers
Network Computers

Last Updated: 10 August 2006.

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