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Open Access Research article

Use of outcomes to evaluate surveillance systems for bioterrorist attacks

Kerry A McBrien12*, Ken P Kleinman3, Allyson M Abrams3 and Lisa A Prosser34

Author Affiliations

1 Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

2 Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Boston, USA

3 Department of Population Medicine, Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Boston, USA

4 University of Michigan Health System, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

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BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 2010, 10:25  doi:10.1186/1472-6947-10-25

Published: 7 May 2010

Abstract

Background

Syndromic surveillance systems can potentially be used to detect a bioterrorist attack earlier than traditional surveillance, by virtue of their near real-time analysis of relevant data. Receiver operator characteristic (ROC) curve analysis using the area under the curve (AUC) as a comparison metric has been recommended as a practical evaluation tool for syndromic surveillance systems, yet traditional ROC curves do not account for timeliness of detection or subsequent time-dependent health outcomes.

Methods

Using a decision-analytic approach, we predicted outcomes, measured in lives, quality adjusted life years (QALYs), and costs, for a series of simulated bioterrorist attacks. We then evaluated seven detection algorithms applied to syndromic surveillance data using outcomes-weighted ROC curves compared to simple ROC curves and timeliness-weighted ROC curves. We performed sensitivity analyses by varying the model inputs between best and worst case scenarios and by applying different methods of AUC calculation.

Results

The decision analytic model results indicate that if a surveillance system was successful in detecting an attack, and measures were immediately taken to deliver treatment to the population, the lives, QALYs and dollars lost could be reduced considerably. The ROC curve analysis shows that the incorporation of outcomes into the evaluation metric has an important effect on the apparent performance of the surveillance systems. The relative order of performance is also heavily dependent on the choice of AUC calculation method.

Conclusions

This study demonstrates the importance of accounting for mortality, morbidity and costs in the evaluation of syndromic surveillance systems. Incorporating these outcomes into the ROC curve analysis allows for more accurate identification of the optimal method for signaling a possible bioterrorist attack. In addition, the parameters used to construct an ROC curve should be given careful consideration.