Doctors may soon find it as easy as reaching in their pockets to obtain the latest bioterrorism warnings and disease treatments from the U.S. government. The project uses personal digital assistants and could enable physicians to access important medical information at all times.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced in Dearborn last Friday that messages about bioterrorism threats and the latest in health care news will be sent directly to physicians through their PDA or Palm Pilot. Links will also be sent that display information on diagnosis and treatment.

“The project is part of a culmination of efforts to cut down on medical errors by using technology,” HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said. “It is also driven by desire for public health preparedness in the event of a bioterrorist attack.”

The distribution of the pilot project’s bioterrorism warning will undergo a three-month trial period and include over 10,000 doctors who use the ePocrates network. HHS will be evaluating it to see how often doctors use the technology and if it is constructive.

“When an alert is sent out, doctors can choose to download it then or wait until later,” HHS spokeswoman Karen Migdail said. “If they really use this, it will be a great way to get vital information to the health community.”

HHS spent $85,000 to use the ePocrates technology in the pilot program. While the current focus is on bioterrorism, many health officials indicated that the technology would be useful to identify all types of outbreaks, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and West Nile virus, which have both received recent national media attention.

The new technology can be effective only if the physician plays an active role in utilizing it, said Rosemarie Rowney, director of training for the University’s Bioterrorism Preparedness Initiative.

“The most important part is that after diagnoses, the doctor reports it to the Public Health Department in their area to establish if in fact there is an outbreak,” Rowney said.

The slowness of the current system of investigating outbreaks is a real problem, said Sandro Cinti, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine Division of Infectious Diseases.

“Outbreaks usually pass by the time we start to investigate them,” Cinti said.

He added that the pilot technology would create a network in which doctors could quickly pool their information together and find the epidemic in time to treat it. He said that the statewide project, a biosurveillance system for symptoms of disease, was looking into using similar technology to survey absenteeism in elementary schools.

“If we could monitor these schools daily, we could really pick up on illnesses and localize them quickly,” Cinti said.

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