Real time syndromic surveillance is the monitoring and analysis of health data in the hope of identifying a potential public health risk, such as an epidemic. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) carries out this analysis and keeps public health officials up to date so that they can respond to any emerging crises. It was one of the first indicators that Covid-19 was fast becoming a public health risk that needed urgently dealing with.

Why is this work needed?

When a public health threat, like a flu epidemic, emerges it is important that public health professionals are made aware as quickly as possible and act based on accurate and current data. As news spread globally about the potential threat of the Covid-19 virus, UKHSA (at the time ‘Public Health England’) were able to track data week by week to see how the risk was developing across the country.

What happens?

Syndromic surveillance is the process of collecting, analysing and interpreting health-related data so that there is an early warning for any public health threats. At UKHSA, the real time syndromic surveillance team coordinates several national systems that record this data. They analyse the collected data and look for trends that could indicate illness levels that are higher than usual or expected, and publish bulletins to keep public health professionals up to date.

What are the benefits?

This system allows public health bodies in the UK to understand trends in illness and swiftly identify any emerging crises. It is vital that data is combined in this way so that individual cases of a disease can be placed in the wider context. For example, it is important to understand if a single episode of a particular flu is an isolated incident or part of a larger epidemic, and how it might be moving through the country geographically.

What type of data is involved?

This process combines a range of anonymised data, including trends in calls to the NHS 111 service, visits to GP surgeries and out of hours services, and daily visits to the emergency departments.

Only anonymised data are received by the UKHSA real-time syndromic surveillance team. Before leaving UKHSA, these data are aggregated, and presented graphically, to national, regional and local level in surveillance bulletins.

Who is funding and collaborating on this work?

This work is government funded because it is part of the function of UKHSA.

Where can I go for more information?

Syndromic surveillance: systems and analyses