Feds test network to send alerts to M.D.s

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has begun testing the use of a health care data-delivery network operated by ePocrates Inc. to transmit bioterrorism-related alerts to doctors equipped with Palm OS-based handheld devices.

HHS and San Mateo, Calif.-based ePocrates launched the three-month pilot this month. The agency is finalizing the data files it plans to distribute for the test, said Dr. John Whyte, the medical director of an HHS panel set up last year to explore new technologies. But HHS could immediately send data via ePocrates’ network if bioterrorism attacks occurred, he added.

Bob Quinn, chief technology officer at ePocrates, said that about 10,000 emergency room physicians and infectious disease and primary care specialists will participate in the pilot. EPocrates plans to launch a version of its software for Pocket PC devices in April, but Quinn said the doctors involved in the test will use handhelds running Palm Inc.’s operating system.

HHS will transmit alerts to ePocrates as Word documents in e-mail attachments, Quinn said. The company will store the alerts in a central Oracle database and convert them into files that can be read by Palm devices when doctors synchronize their handhelds with the database.

Quinn said ePocrates, which runs a mix of Unix and Windows systems, can tailor information to subscribers based on parameters such as medical specialty and location. Eventually, he added, ePocrates wants to provide HHS with an extranet tool so the agency can transmit alerts directly.

Whyte, who works for the HHS Council on Private Sector Initiatives to Improve the Security, Safety and Quality of Health Care, wouldn’t disclose the cost of the pilot program or say how quickly HHS plans to broaden distribution of the alerts if the test is successful.

About 250,000 doctors and 450,000 other medical workers have signed up to use the ePocrates network. The company stores information about prescription drugs in its database and sends out its own alerts with updated drug safety data and news.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an arm of HHS, already operates a network that distributes information to public-health departments. Whyte said the deal with ePocrates will let HHS quickly send alerts about potentially threatening biological agents to doctors who aren’t tied into the CDC’s network.

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