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Bioterrorism Research

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Only one-fourth of family doctors believe they are prepared to respond to a bioterrorist attack

Primary care doctors will be among the first responders in the event of a bioterrorist attack involving agents such as anthrax, smallpox, or ebola virus. They must be able to diagnose bioterrorism-related infections, whose symptoms often mimic those of common conditions like the flu, and activate the public health system to respond to the attack. However, only one-fourth (26 percent) of family doctors report knowing what to do as a physician during a bioterrorist attack, according to an October 2001 national survey of 976 family doctors who were randomly selected from the American Academy of Family Physicians' membership directory.

Family doctors who had received bioterrorism preparedness training were nearly three times as likely as other doctors to know how to respond to a bioterrorist attack (55 vs. 20 percent), and 93 percent said they would like to have such training. Primary care doctors should seek training in this area, suggest researchers at the Center for Primary Care Research, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Frederick M. Chen, M.D., M.P.H., Kenneth S. Fink, M.D., M.G.A., M.P.H., and Helen Burstin, M.D., M.P.H., and their colleagues at the American Academy of Family Physicians National Network for Family Practice and Primary Care Research (AHRQ grant HS11182).

Nearly all (95 percent) of the 614 doctors who responded to the survey agreed that a bioterrorist attack was a real threat within the United States. However, only 24 percent believed they could recognize signs and symptoms of a bioterrorism-related illness in their patients, and 38 percent rated their current knowledge of the diagnosis and management of bioterrorism-related illness as poor. Only 27 percent of doctors surveyed believed that the U.S. health care system could respond effectively to such an attack, and just 17 percent thought that their local hospitals and medical communities could respond effectively. About half (56 percent) knew how to get information if they suspected an attack in their community, which is the greatest predictor of being able to diagnose and report cases.

See "On the front lines: Family physicians' preparedness for bioterrorism," by Dr. Chen, John Hickner, M.D., M.S., Dr. Fink, and others, in the September 2002 Journal of Family Practice 51(9), pp. 745-750.

Reprints (AHRQ Publication No. 02-R091) are available from from the AHRQ Publications Clearinghouse.

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