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OMAHA, Neb. - You're driving alone one night when - WHAM! - a car broadsides you, knocking you unconscious.

In the rescue squad, an attendant finds your universal health card and slips it into a hand-held computer, which quickly displays your name, blood type, allergies and other vital information.

At the hospital, a nurse in the emergency room punches up more information in the computer: your doctor's name; a family member to contact; a list of medications you take; operations you've had; cautionary comments from your doctor.

That's one of a number of scenarios offered by creators of Health Data Card, which they hope eventually will be available nationwide.

Dr. Daniel Dietrich, Henry Zach and Ron Novero founded the company.

The universal health card still is a dream, but people who hear about it embrace the idea, said Zach, who is president of the company.

"The response we're getting has been very good," he said.

Alegent Health, Methodist Hospital, Children's Hospital, the Creighton University Medical Center and the Nebraska Medical Center recently agreed to install the system's software in their emergency rooms.

Plans also are under way to put hand-held card readers in Omaha rescue squads and ambulances.

And HDC is talking with insurance companies, employers and other groups about getting the cards out to people, with a goal of 100,000 cards within a year.

The cards retail for $65 to $75 each, but large groups could pay less than $30. HDC is distributing the software free to medical providers, and the card-reading devices cost about $30 to $50.

The system uses what are known as "smart" cards, which carry memory chips that hold more information than the magnetic strips found on most credit cards.

Putting medical information on such a card is the easy part, said Donald Davis, editor of Card Technology magazine of Chicago. The Omaha group isn't the first to think about a smart card carrying medical information, he said.

"The card won't do you any good unless the EMT in the ambulance or the doctor in the hospital can read it," Davis said. "That's always been the big obstacle. If they have a plan for how to do that, they may be on their way."

Beyond that, he said, the company will have to convince doctors, hospitals and insurance companies that the card will benefit them financially. That some Omaha hospitals have agreed to install the software in their emergency rooms is a promising sign, Davis said.

But the card's success will depend on logistical details - getting cards in widespread circulation and making them worthwhile for hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, employers and the average person.

Most doctors' offices, for example, don't have time to sell the cards to patients. It remains to be seen whether insurance companies, employers and the average person would buy them.

Zach believes they will.

The concept grew from the experiences of Omaha physician Daniel Dietrich when he was a patient himself and from the experiences of his wife, Lynda, a nurse. As a patient, he said, he had to recite his medical information many times to medical-care providers. Once, groggy with medication, he forgot to mention that he was allergic to penicillin.

After that, Dietrich said, he and his wife wondered if it wouldn't be better to have that kind of information on a handy, reliable card.

"The more we looked at it, the more it seemed like a better and better idea," Dietrich said.

He hooked up with Ron Novero, now HDC's chief operating officer, and with Zach, who has marketing and business startup experience.

"Our big thrust was to develop the software and get it to the physicians to use it," Dietrich said. Revenue from the cards will support the free software, he said.

Copyright © 2003 Omaha World-Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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