The latest version of the NHS Strategic Tracing System (NSTS) has played a key role in getting the results of Legionnaires’ Disease tests out to GPs and patients during the recent outbreak in Cumbria.

Staff at Morecambe Bay Hospital NHS Trust, who have been delivering and co-ordinating medical care during the outbreak were able to use the latest version of the NSTS a week ahead of its national roll-out to identify the GPs of patients who had been tested and get results out swiftly. The system holds the administrative details of over 60 million NHS registered patients.

Nearly 1600 people were tested in seven days at the height of the outbreak which has led to 125 confirmed cases, including three deaths.

The trust’s head of information systems, Steve Fairclough, explained, “Getting access to the latest version of the NSTS was of huge benefit to us and our patients. About four days after the outbreak we realised we had a bit of a black hole because we didn’t have the GP details for many of the people who had been tested. This included tests sent in from primary care and others taken from people who had attended A&E.”

Test results had to be sent first to the GP in case treatment was needed. Fortunately, in the vast majority of cases in Cumbria the tests were negative and patients could be reassured swiftly that they were in the clear.

IT has become a great ally of the clinicians and authorities who have to deal with disease outbreaks. One focus of research in the US involves the analysis of real time data in health systems to identify outbreaks as they start. The University of Pittsburgh’s Real Time Outbreak and Disease Surveillance (RODS) Laboratory has a mission to investigate methods for the real-time detection and assessment of outbreaks of disease using information technology.

This line of research began in 1999 and evolved from work in clinical event monitoring funded by the National Library of Medicine. More recent interest in bioterrorism, post September 11, has added impetus to the search for ways of detecting outbreaks that might have been started deliberately.