Accounting for healthcare-seeking behaviours and testing practices in real-time influenza forecasts

Moss R, Zarebski AE, Carlson SJ, McCaw JM

Tropical Medicine and Infectious Disease 4(1): 12 (2019) [doi]

For diseases such as influenza, where the majority of infected persons experience mild (if any) symptoms, surveillance systems are sensitive to changes in healthcare-seeking and clinical decision-making behaviours. This presents a challenge when trying to interpret surveillance data in near-real-time (e.g., to provide public health decision-support). Australia experienced a particularly large and severe influenza season in 2017, perhaps in part due to: (a) mild cases being more likely to seek healthcare; and (b) clinicians being more likely to collect specimens for reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) influenza tests. In this study, we used weekly Flutracking surveillance data to estimate the probability that a person with influenza-like illness (ILI) would seek healthcare and have a specimen collected. We then used this estimated probability to calibrate near-real-time seasonal influenza forecasts at each week of the 2017 season, to see whether predictive skill could be improved. While the number of self-reported influenza tests in the weekly surveys are typically very low, we were able to detect a substantial change in healthcare seeking behaviour and clinician testing behaviour prior to the high epidemic peak. Adjusting for these changes in behaviour in the forecasting framework improved predictive skill. Our analysis demonstrates a unique value of community-level surveillance systems, such as Flutracking, when interpreting traditional surveillance data. These methods are also applicable beyond the Australian context, as similar community-level surveillance systems operate in other countries.