The American medical system would be better able to respond to bioterrorism threats like anthrax if the nations hospitals, doctors and epidemiologists were connected via the Web, according to the eHealth Initiative, a newly formed consortium of health care IT companies.
High-speed Web connections would allow medical providers to share information about symptoms, outbreaks, treatment protocols and other data that could be critically important during the first few hours of a bioterrorist attack, said the group, which held its first meeting yesterday in Washington, D.C.
Members say there are few technical barriers to implementing such a system because many hospitals, medical centers, law enforcement agencies and other entities already have Web connectivity.
"Building upon the existing infrastructure and coupling it with the Internet as a global communications backbone will improve the speed of detection of and the coordination of responses to a bioterrorist action," said Russell Ricci, M.D., general manager of IBMs health care industry segment and the chairman of the eHealth Initiative. "It makes more sense to expand and link existing clinical information and response systems rather than try to construct a whole new infrastructure from scratch."
The eHealth Initiative was created in March with the purpose of speeding the adoption of information technology in the health care field. The group has more than 50 members, including Cerner, Electronic Data Systems, GE Medical Systems, IBM, Internet Healthcare Coalition, Johnson & Johnson, Mayo Medical Ventures, McKesson, Medtronic, Pfizer Health Solutions and Siemens Medical Solutions Health Services.
The group proposes a multifaceted approach to bioterrorism. Measures they cited include creating:
- A forum so that public agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Veterans Health Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others can discuss how to better identify and respond to a bioterrorist attack.
- Web-based tools to provide first responders like primary care and emergency room physicians with up-to-date information on detecting, treating and dealing with bioterror-related illnesses.
- New supply, inventory, and distribution management systems for prescription drugs and other consumables that may be needed for treatment.
- Web-based systems that will facilitate communication between hospitals and physician offices as well as appropriate public health organizations.
- Data mining applications that will extract, aggregate, and analyze diagnostic and treatment information across multiple organizations.
Jim Gabler, a research director at Gartner who specializes in medical information technology issues, believes the proposal is a good one. "Creating a better way of exchanging information on terrorism is something we clearly have to deal with," he said.
But Gabler is also skeptical. He points out that almost every company in the eHealth Initiative is a vendor that could profit from the creation of the systems needed for a bioterrorism response system. Gablers other concerns revolve around the willingness of private companies to share their proprietary information with the government, the privacy mandates of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
It is also unclear who would pay for the network and how much it would cost.
The Canadian governments recent decision to ignore patents held by Bayer AG on its prescription antibiotic, Cipro, are indicative of the conflicts that could arise from a shared bioterrorism response system. More problematic may be the privacy of citizens who are victimized by anthrax or other bioterrorism agents. HIPAA proscribes medical providers from releasing personally identifiable information about their patients. "Its a civil liberties question," says Gabler. "On one hand you want to share that information. But on the other, how much do you share? Thats not a clear-cut issue."