Milwaukee makes fast response

Milwaukee's approach hinges on a Web-based application already running in city emergency rooms

Milwaukee's approach to strengthening public health information technology resources for responding to possible bioterrorism strikes hinges on a Web-based application already running in city emergency rooms.

"My obsession is how to get information to the health care community and other first responders," said Seth Foldy, Milwaukee's health commissioner.

Before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started working on the national Health Alert Network (HAN), Milwaukee had an infrastructure in place for sharing information among emergency workers. Area emergency rooms and emergency management service dispatchers have long communicated basic information via a proprietary application dubbed EMSystem.

Produced by Infinity HealthCare in Mequon, Wis., EMSystem is a Web-based program hospitals and emergency services workers use to exchange information about emergency rooms — namely whether they are open to ambulance traffic.

Specifically, hospitals post their ambulance traffic status at set intervals, and EMSystem uses the information to generate a regional status screen that 911 dispatchers use when responding to emergencies. The system is a subscription- based service run entirely out of Infinity HealthCare's data center.

But information swapped on EMSystem is basic, and Milwaukee officials wanted to expand the amount of information available to first responders, as well as broaden access to the system.

Foldy envisioned, for instance, the ability to post details on E. coli outbreaks and other local epidemics. "We wanted to be able to provide incident-specific information," he said. "For heat emergency plans, we'd send out alerts that remind workers of their responsibilities. This would save them from having to look in a bunch of file drawers."

"We asked EMSystem users, 'How would you like to give public health the ability to post messages there?'" Foldy said.

The answer was to create a parallel HAN site that emergency workers and others will securely log on to for detailed information on health situations. "It can be used for a number of different types of syndromes, including bioterror attacks," Foldy said.

Further, the city will grant access to more than just frontline responders. Physicians' offices and other facilities could use the resource, should the city require a massive emergency response.

"EMSystem was not designed to be a main portal," Foldy said. "HAN will become that for Milwaukee's health officials and the medical community."

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