WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service has begun testing a system using handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs) for transmitting urgent information about biological agents to clinicians. HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson announced the start of the test last month.

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

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

The project will evaluate the use of a system created by ePocrates, the nation's largest physicians' handheld network, for sending an urgent "Doc Alert" message to more than 700,000 front-line clinicians, including more than 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 by the Department to communicate directly with more than 25,000 public health officials in the 50 states, eight U.S. territories and seven large cities.