Texas launches health network

Texas Health Alert Network

Calling it a "work in progress," Texas has launched a statewide electronic

health communications network that so far connects 64 public health organizations

in an effort to improve surveillance and reporting of infectious diseases

and possible bioterrorist attacks.

The state's Health Alert Network (HAN), in development for three years,

is among the first such system in the nation to be launched, state health

officials said in an Aug. 9 teleconference sponsored by Dell Computer Corp.,

which supplied much of the hardware.

"Hours and days could mean the difference between 10 and tens of thousands

of casualties," said Michael Mastrangelo, co-founder of Texas HAN.

HAN actually is a nationwide initiative led by the Centers for Disease

Control and Prevention since 1999 to bolster secure, high-speed, two-way

communication among the federal government and states about emerging infectious

diseases, environmental health dangers, potential bioterrorist attacks as

well as other surveillance and laboratory data.

CDC has provided about $90 million in funding and technical assistance

to more than three dozen state health agencies and metropolitan health departments,

and three centers for public health preparedness to develop their statewide

systems. Health officials have previously said that across the nation, about

10 percent of local public health departments do not have e-mail and up

to 40 percent do not have high-speed Internet access.

Texas HAN began with about $15 million in state funding and portions

of $52 million awarded by the federal government this year, said Wayne Farrell,

district director of the Bell County Public Health District, located in

the central part of the state.

Mastrangelo estimated that about half the local health departments in

Texas didn't have adequate Internet access, defined as continuous access.

Each of the 64 sites, which represent only a part of the state's health

system, is equipped with Dell PowerEdge 500SC servers and up to five Dell

desktop or notebook computers. The network allows sites to maintain their

link via automatic redundant connections if the main high-speed connection

fails, he said.

Eventually the state plans to equip all public health centers, hospitals,

clinics and law enforcement agencies, he said, meaning that 90 percent of

the state population will be covered by the network. However, one challenge

is persuading the state's political leadership to continue investment in

telecommunications infrastructure so the network can grow. Officials said

funding is being sought and studies are being done to connect other sites.

Another major benefit of the state HAN is being able to tap into training

and distance learning. Mastrangelo said there are plans to double the number

of sites with interactive two-way videoconferencing, which stands at 17

now. He said they are working with university medical centers and other

groups to provide content now that they've laid the communications network

down.

He said it might take up to five years before all pieces of the network

are in place.

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