HHS testing bioterror alerts via handheld

The Department of Health and Human Services will begin testing a bioterrorism alert system for doctors and other health clinicians carrying handheld computers, officials said today.

The alert system is a pilot project developed by ePocrates Inc., which operates the nation's largest handheld network of clinicians. The company is able to send urgent DocAlert messages to more than 700,000 health workers, including 250,000 doctors — nearly half of all practicing physicians in the United States.

The 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," said HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson. "This will literally allow them to have critical information at their fingertips when they need it most."

An HHS spokeswoman said ePocrates won the $85,000 pilot contract in January, and it will be tested in the next three months. The text message of the bioterror DocAlerts will contain a special memo on the highest biological threats, including anthrax, the plague and smallpox.

It also includes Web links for clinicians to go to for additional information about diagnosing and treating conditions caused by biological agents.

The HHS spokeswoman also said the alert could be used for other kinds of illnesses, such as the mysterious flu-like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which first appeared in Asia and caused the deaths of at least 10 people.

"When the alert pops up, it will include telephone numbers for an emergency response," the spokeswoman said. "If a patient presents with certain symptoms, [it indicates] here's what you should do."

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