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Ann Fam Med. 2004 Sep-Oct;2(5):434-7.

Rapid assessment of agents of biological terrorism: defining the differential diagnosis of inhalational anthrax using electronic communication in a practice-based research network.

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Wisconsin Research Network, Madison, Wis, USA.



Early detection of bioterrorism requires assessment of diagnoses assigned to cases of rare diseases with which clinicians have little experience. In this study, we evaluated the process of defining the differential diagnosis for inhalational anthrax using electronic communication within a practice-based research network (PBRN) and compared the results with those obtained from a nationwide random sample of family physicians with a mailed instrument.


We distributed survey instruments by e-mail to 55 physician members of the Wisconsin Research Network (WReN), a regional PBRN. The instruments consisted of 3 case vignettes randomly drawn from a set describing 11 patients with inhalational anthrax, 2 with influenza A, and 1 with Legionella pneumonia. Physicians provided their most likely nonanthrax diagnosis, along with their responses to 4 yes-or-no management questions for each case. Physicians who had not responded at 1 week received a second e-mail with the survey instrument. The comparison group consisted of the nationwide sample of physicians who completed mailed survey instruments. Primary outcome measures were response rate, median response time, and frequencies of diagnostic categories assigned to cases of inhalational anthrax.


The PBRN response rate compared favorably with that of the national sample (47.3% vs 37.0%; P = not significant). The median response time for the PBRN was significantly shorter than that for the national sample (2 vs 28 days; P < .001). No significant differences were found between the PBRN and the Midwest subset of the national sample in the frequencies of major diagnostic categories or in case management.


Electronic means of creating differential diagnoses for rare infectious diseases of national significance is feasible within PBRNs. Information is much more rapidly acquired and is consistent with that obtained by conventional methods.

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