HHS tests Palm PDAs for bioterror alerts to doctors

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced plans on March 21 to test a network operated by ePocrates Inc. to transmit bioterrorist health alerts to Palm OS-based handheld computers used by doctors across the nation.

HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a statement that the new project "will allow us to harness the power of technology to communicate with many of the doctors, nurses and other clinicians who will be called on to diagnose and treat patients quickly in the event of a bioterrorist attack. This will literally allow them to have critical information at their fingertips when they need it most."

The ePocrates pilot project is managed by the HHS Council on Private Sector Initiatives to Improve the Security, Safety, and Quality of Health Care (CPSI). It was established last year to ensure that HHS taps into technology products or ideas from private organizations or individuals that could improve public health/bioterrorism preparedness.

Although the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, another HHS agency, already operates the Health Alert Network (HAN) to distribute bioterror alert information to state and local public-health departments (see story), Dr. John Whyte, medical director for CPSI, said the ePocrates system has a potentially wider reach.

San Mateo, Calif.-based ePocrates has signed up 250,000 doctors nationwide who use the company's handheld computer drug database to help determine the correct prescription and dosage for sick patients. EPocrates updates that database periodically and also sends out its own "DocAlert" messages on drug safety information from the Food and Drug Administration or topical clinical news, according to Lydia Green, an ePocrates spokeswoman. Doctors primarily update the information on their personal digital assistants (PDA) through a "hot sync" synchronization session, she said.

Whyte said the test with ePocrates will help HHS quickly disseminate health alert information on biological diseases/agents such as anthrax, smallpox and plague to doctors not directly tied in to the CDC HAN, including emergency room physicians and internal medicine specialists. He called the system a "complement" to the CDC HAN. CPSI hasn't yet determined the complete content of the data files it plans to distribute in the ePocrates test. But Whyte said that if the country experienced a bioterrorism attack, HHS could "immediately" use the system.

Dr. Justin Graham, an infectious disease specialist affiliated with Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., agreed that the ePocrates project serves as a complement to HAN. "There is no way you can send too much information to doctors," he added. Graham said he believes a bioterror alert would provide him with the information needed to better diagnose and possibly test whether a patient's symptoms result from common illnesses such as the flu or from a biological agent.

Bob Quinn, chief technology officer at ePocrates, said the three-month pilot will focus on 10,000 emergency room physicians and infectious disease and primary care specialists. All doctors participating in the test will use handhelds running the Palm OS, since ePocrates won't launch a Pocket PC version of its application until next month.

Quinn went on to note that an increasing number of ePocrates users -- which includes the 250,000 doctors and another 450,000 clinicians such as nurses, dentists, pharmacists and even veterinarians -- connect to the service using wireless networks. Last fall, between 15% and 20% of the subscribers said they used wireless rather than sync software to connect, Quinn said.

"We believe this number has grown since then and that a reasonable percentage of our users are planning to upgrade over the next year," he said.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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