Evaluation of reporting timeliness of public health surveillance systems for infectious diseases

BMC Public Health. 2004 Jul 26;4:29. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-4-29.


Background: Timeliness is a key performance measure of public health surveillance systems. Timeliness can vary by disease, intended use of the data, and public health system level. Studies were reviewed to describe methods used to evaluate timeliness and the reporting timeliness of National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS) data was evaluated to determine if this system could support timely notification and state response to multistate outbreaks.

Methods: Published papers that quantitatively measured timeliness of infectious disease surveillance systems operating in the U.S. were reviewed. Median reporting timeliness lags were computed for selected nationally notifiable infectious diseases based on a state-assigned week number and various date types. The percentage of cases reported within the estimated incubation periods for each disease was also computed.

Results: Few studies have published quantitative measures of reporting timeliness; these studies do not evaluate timeliness in a standard manner. When timeliness of NNDSS data was evaluated, the median national reporting delay, based on date of disease onset, ranged from 12 days for meningococcal disease to 40 days for pertussis. Diseases with the longer incubation periods tended to have a higher percentage of cases reported within its incubation period. For acute hepatitis A virus infection, which had the longest incubation period of the diseases studied, more than 60% of cases were reported within one incubation period for each date type reported. For cryptosporidiosis, Escherichia coli O157:H7 infection, meningococcal disease, salmonellosis, and shigellosis, less than 40% of cases were reported within one incubation period for each reported date type.

Conclusion: Published evaluations of infectious disease surveillance reporting timeliness are few in number and are not comparable. A more standardized approach for evaluating and describing surveillance system timeliness should be considered; a recommended methodology is presented. Our analysis of NNDSS reporting timeliness indicated that among the conditions evaluated (except for acute hepatitis A infection), the long reporting lag and the variability across states limits the usefulness of NNDSS data and aberration detection analysis of those data for identification of and timely response to multistate outbreaks. Further evaluation of the factors that contribute to NNDSS reporting timeliness is warranted.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communicable Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Disease Notification / standards*
  • Evaluation Studies as Topic
  • Federal Government
  • Health Services Research
  • Humans
  • Public Health Informatics / standards*
  • Sentinel Surveillance*
  • State Government
  • Time Factors
  • United States / epidemiology