A consortium of US public health agencies and health care companies in June plans to launch a three-month test of a data collection and distribution network that is designed to act as an automated early-warning system in the event of epidemics like the global spread of the Sars virus.
The web-based network could also alert health care officials to possible bioterrorist attacks, said Janet Marchibroda, chief executive officer of the eHealth Initiative consortium.
The initiative has about 115 members, including major suppliers of health care IT systems.
Some US cities, including New York, have developed local systems similar to the one envisioned by eHealth since the 11 September terrorist attacks in 2001. But the US lacks a cohesive and standards-based network that can be used nationwide, according to Marchibroda.
Nine hospitals across the US plan to take part in the test of eHealth's proposed National Healthcare Collaborative Network, along with local, state and federal health agencies, she said.
The eHealth network will capture patient data collected by hospitals - especially in emergency rooms - and automatically distribute information to health agencies.
The project was under way before the recent outbreak of Sars, but Dr Russell Ricci, general manager of IBM's global health care division, said automated syndromic surveillance technology that can collect information about symptoms like the high fever and respiratory problems that are common with Sars will be a key component of the three-month test.
Syndromic surveillance systems can also gather information about sales of over-the-counter medicines, Ricci said.
The pilot project will demonstrate how to apply sophisticated data mining techniques to the health care industry and how to tie together hospital information systems using commercial middleware tools, Ricci said.
The test version of the network will support electronic data exchange standards that were mandated by the US Department of Health and Human Services in March, Marchibroda said.
She added that eHealth officials hope that the project will lead to the development of a full network, but that will depend on additional funding.
Ricci said he could not quantify the cost of implementing a full nationwide network, but added it was likely that federal backing would be needed.
Dr Seth Foldy, health commissioner for the city of Milwaukee, said he hopes that eHealth's efforts will lead to the eventual development of a system that would make it easier to exchange syndromic surveillance data.
"This is not going to be easy, but maybe eHealth can build a business case and demonstrate that it is possible," Foldy said.
The surveillance data can alert doctors and public health officials to potential outbreaks of epidemics like Sars more quickly than is possible with traditional, diagnosis-based systems, which often require lab tests that take days to complete.
Syndromic systems provide more immediate information about patterns of symptoms among patients, Foldy said.