WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Secretary Tommy Thompson said last week that the Department of Health and Human Services will begin testing a system using PDAs for transmitting urgent information about biological agents to clinicians.

The three-month pilot test of the PDA network is designed to gauge the best ways for federal officials to communicate effectively with front-line clinicians in the event of a bio terrorist attack, HHS officials said. The project will evaluate how and when clinicians download the information and whether they find it useful to receive it via their PDAs.

The project will evaluate the use of a system created by ePocrates, a physicians' handheld network, for sending an urgent "Doc Alert" message to more than 700,000 front-line clinicians, including approximately 250,000 physicians -- more than 40 percent of the practicing physicians in the United States.

The test message will contain a special memo on the highest threat (category A) biological diseases/agents, which include anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox, tularemia and viral hemorrhagic fevers, including Ebola. The message will also include Web links for clinicians to go to for additional information about diagnosing and treating the conditions caused by the biological agents.

Clinicians will be able to save this information to their PDAs for future reference.

The pilot project will be managed by HHS' Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and is designed to complement the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's existing Health Alert Network -- which was created in 1998 and is used to communicate directly with more than 25,000 public health officials in the 50 states, eight U.S. territories and seven large cities.

The ePocrates pilot project is being conducted under the auspices of the Council on Private Sector Initiatives to Improve the Security, Safety, and Quality of Health Care. This project is the first one to have been accepted and funded through this new initiative.

The ePocrates network is being used by Washington state to post its Medicaid drug preferences on the network so physicians in the state can access them more easily.