Property-casualty insurers looking for ways to streamline claims processing may want to consider equipping their claims professionals with one of the new generation of small, portable, Internet-accessible devices.

The instruments–which include PDAs and multitask-enabled mobile phones–are now available with technologies that allow easy interaction with an insurer’s integrated insurance system for remote, real-time processing.

The new technologies have made screens clearer and easier to navigate, providing the ability to show critical criteria for claims–such as policy-in-force periods, coverage amounts and deductibles.

Claims professionals may require fewer clicks to access data than they would while sitting at their desktop and, given the size of PDA devices, they can enjoy far greater convenience and greater mobility in the field than with a laptop.

The technologies making the highly portable devices more appealing for many claims processing tasks are Ajax, which supports the Palm platform, and Microsoft’s Atlas, both of which are similar in function to Java. They can reduce the amount of information transmitted per page, allowing devices with limited speed to perform better.

A further consideration now favoring the instruments has to do with increased network transmission rates offered by wireless service providers. As networks improve, so too does the performance of hand-held, Internet-accessible devices.

In using such devices, you should determine the needs of your workforce. Examining your company’s existing claims procedures can help determine if–and to what extent–you may want to adopt a new communications channel for processing claims on site.

Some basic questions:

o Which suits your purposes better–a small device or a laptop?

In cases where a laptop would be used primarily for the entry and receipt of data, and depending on the volume and format of data that is transmitted, a small hand-held may be a cost-efficient equipment selection.

Internet accessible devices typically run from $50 to $600, while laptops range from $600 to $5,000.

Location and situation come into the decision-making process. Claims professionals working at a disaster area, such as a flood site, will often find the portability of a PDA or phone preferable to toting a laptop that operates best on a flat, dry surface.

If your claims professionals are frequent travelers, the pocket-fitting devices can be a relief from lugging a laptop’s attach? case. Of course, if communications are questionable, a laptop has more storage capabilities and might be more efficient for disaster areas.

o What is your degree of data entry?

For keystroke-intensive situations such as opening a claim, which can require a description of events and injuries, a laptop with standard keyboard is often the right tool for the job.

Laptops also get the nod over smaller devices if your reports call for the use of storage-consuming programs or protecting fields, or if the machines are used for purposes in addition to data retrieval.

The type of files you transmit to claims professionals can likewise favor a laptop. Declaration page images, for example, would require excessive time to receive by phone.

If data entry requirements will vary on a case-by-case basis, then a combination of an Internet-accessible device and a laptop may provide your claims professionals with the best overall on-site claims processing solution.

o Do you currently equip your claims professionals with a mobile phone?

The move to Internet-accessible devices that are sufficiently powerful to process claims may be a simple and inexpensive upgrade through your existing service provider. A choice between PDA and phone will need to be made, with screen size and site navigation compatibility being primary determining factors.

A person equipped with a phone will find navigation difficult if your Web pages are designed to display on a PDA’s larger screen. If simple text will be accessed, a phone’s small screen should suffice.

There are other options to look at, as well. The recently introduced Microsoft Ultra-Mobile PC is a cross between a phone and a computer that weighs just under a pound. It includes a camera, phone and touch screen.

Tablet PCs that allow data to be handwritten can be viable alternatives to keystroke and push-key devices, and certain PDAs and phones are available with slide out or plug-in keyboards, which provide a big data entry assist.

Advancements that make Internet-accessible devices desirable for claims processing are being made on the software front, as well. For example, technologies now exist that allow users to develop PDA software without having to use a PDA. The software simulates a PDA so the designer can see how it actually works on their computer screen.

Connectivity challenges are the same for Internet-accessible devices as they are for laptops–you cannot always accurately predict where bad reception will occur.

One notable difference, however, is that a laptop could have an application stored and running, and a user could access that application without needing connectivity. A note: Connectivity is rapidly becoming less of a challenge as networks continue to expand.

Internet-accessible devices are gaining traction in the insurance industry for on-site content delivery. My company has seen the trend emerge as insurers accessing a p-c integrated insurance system to process claims, and end users interacting with it to make payments or enter inquiries via their phones.