Addicts of television hospital dramas will be familiar with the plethora of bewildering data flashing up on screens in intensive care units.
Unfortunately, the information can be equally bewildering for hospital staff, and researchers at Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities are now joining forces to see how best to help nurses and doctors make decisions.
Cognitive psychologists and computer scientists at Aberdeen are working with neo-natal intensive care specialists at Edinburgh's Simpson Maternity Hospital to investigate how computerised information can help medical staff treat the infants.
Neil McIntosh, head of Edinburgh's department of child life and health, said: "We've done a study to see whether this displayed information improved the outcome, and it didn't. It may be that among all the normal information, the abnormal is very difficult to see. It may also be that the junior staff, who are the ones there all the time, are not able to recognise the problems so easily as the senior staff."
The Aberdeen psychologists will study the way senior and junior medical and nursing staff make decisions about babies in intensive care wards, examining what kind of information and how much is considered when assessing the baby's condition or making decisions about treatment. This will then be used as the basis of a computer system designed to offer expert advice to nurses or doctors at the cotside.
"The problem with many of the current systems is that some of the designers of computerised medical aids do not fully understand the thinking process of the kinds of staff who will eventually use the computer system," said Jim Hunter of Aberdeen's computing science department.
Professor McIntosh said that traditional systems simply added more and more information which made it increasingly difficult to see what was important. The hope was that the machines could alert staff in a much more selective way.
The Pounds 150,000 project is being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council under a programme examining the different ways in which cognitive engineering can be applied in a range of professions, including medicine.