Establish a system for prompt collection of pandemic data

Prompt information gathering and analysis are important to bring infectious diseases under control. With the government still struggling to collect data on patients two years after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it can only be said that the situation is critical.

In a set of proposals compiled this month, a panel of experts that examined the government’s response to the pandemic pointed out delays in information collection and the insufficient utilization of data.

In the proposals, the panel specifically highlighted the insufficient use of the government’s Health Center Real-time Information-sharing System on COVID-19 (HER-SYS), which was introduced in May 2020 in the early stages of the pandemic.

Without prompt information on patients — such as when symptoms appeared, what kind of symptoms they have and where they have been — it is not possible to contain infection clusters and prevent infections based on the characteristics of the virus. An urgent overhaul of the current data collection system is needed.

Poor usability is the reason for the lack of utilization of HER-SYS.

The central government has called for medical workers, such as doctors who examine patients, to enter information into the system directly. However, when the system was first introduced, there were about 120 items that needed to be inputted, creating an enormous workload that hampered medical services.

The number of input fields has now been reduced to about 20, but there are still some items that are difficult to determine, such as the cause and route of infection. Many doctors are unfamiliar with using computers, and a situation in which information is written on paper and then faxed to public health centers has not been resolved yet.

As a result, public health centers are being overwhelmed with the task of inputting data into HER-SYS on behalf of medical institutions, resulting in a cycle of delays.

Even though a system is built at a huge expense, it is meaningless if the system is not used. Why didn’t the government listen to the opinions of doctors and other medical workers when developing and refining the system to make it easy to use in the field?

The government has introduced a system to consolidate the vaccination records of the general public. There is also an existing database with medication data and other such information, but HER-SYS is not linked to these systems. As a result, the effectiveness of vaccines and medications is not being sufficiently verified.

Under such circumstances, effective measures against infectious diseases cannot be expected to appear. The situation likely arose because the government lacks personnel who are able to see the whole picture of system development.

The government is currently developing a new system to replace HER-SYS. The new system is reportedly intended to cover information on infectious diseases — in addition to COVID-19 — that must be reported under the Infectious Diseases Law, and it will be possible to input information via smartphones.

The system should be designed to connect to other systems so that a wide range of data can be used. It is crucial to prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks by overcoming the weaknesses in data collection that have emerged amid the pandemic.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 25, 2022)