How COVID-19 accelerated the shift from paper forms to digital data in Vietnam

March 13, 2020 by Tom Furtwangler and Elaine Ung

In less than two weeks a communicable diseases surveillance system was adapted to track COVID-19 digitally.

Ngo Tuan, PATH HIS team lead, global health security program, reviews COVID-19 data collected by the new digital surveillance system developed rapidly by a group of partners including PATH.

Ngo Tuan, Health Information Systems team lead in PATH’s Global Health Security program, reviews COVID-19 data collected by a new digital surveillance system rapidly developed by PATH and partners. Photo: PATH.

A shared border with China

In February, at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in China, if a suspected case showed up on the Vietnam-China border, or arrived off a bus or plane in a Vietnamese town or village, the system used to track and report that suspected case was still slow, manual, and laborious. A health care worker at a district health center or hospital would enter the details of the case into a paper form developed by the government of Vietnam for outbreaks, and then a clerk would add that data to a disease surveillance spreadsheet, which was then shared with the regional public health institutes and Ministry of Health every day.

This system, while slow, was adequate for health issues that do not require a nimble and flexible response. But for a fast-moving outbreak like the novel coronavirus, accurate real-time data about cases and transmission are needed to shape the response, allocate resources, and make critical policy decisions to prevent further transmission.

Supporting the government’s urgent request

As COVID-19 emerged, Vietnam’s border with China, and the frequency of people traveling into Vietnam from China, Korea, and Japan, became a major concern. The Ministry of Health requested urgent support from partners, and the US CDC and PATH began to collaborate with other partners to develop a real-time online case reporting system for tracking suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“Our experience developing digital tools meant we could collaborate to build a digital system to track this outbreak in just nine days.”
— Nguyen To Nhu, PATH's program director for global health security in Vietnam

Fortunately, Vietnam has increasingly digitized its healthcare system, with PATH as a key partner in the effort. Recent projects have included online surveillance portals for antimicrobial resistance and healthcare-associated infections; the national immunization information system; and the setup of national and regional data warehouses.

The Ministry of Health knew they could call on PATH, as a trusted and reliable partner, to provide technical assistance for emergency requests. "Our experience in developing digital tools meant we could respond to the Ministry of Health’s request to provide technical assistance to the local IT company Viettel, and collaborate to build an electronic system to track this outbreak very quickly," says Nguyen To Nhu, PATH's program director for global health security in Vietnam.

Leveraging our experiences and existing systems, PATH and partners developed new online COVID-19 reporting forms and had them completed and in testing in just nine days. In this online reporting system, suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19, and close contacts, are entered into the database from primary healthcare facilities, such as district health centers and hospitals, and COVID-19 quarantine centers, and can also be entered using smartphones.

That data are immediately available to decision makers, and is also presented onscreen as visualizations of case clusters, making it easier to present and understand data about the relationship between cases, how transmission is occurring, and how the outbreak is moving.

With this system, the Ministry of Health's daily emergency operations center meetings with four regional public health institutes could access and analyze COVID-19 case data in real time, and make informed decisions on initiating immediate interventions. The system has helped them to develop the quarantine strategy, which uses data to analyze case clusters and level of contact, and trace contacts to determine appropriate quarantine and isolation measures.

A screenshot of the visualizations available in the COVID-19 online reporting system.

Screenshot of data and maps available in the online COVID-19 surveillance tool.

PATH is responding around the world

As COVID-19 spreads around the world, PATH is working to lessen the impact of the pandemic. Our experts are partnering with governments to establish emergency operations centers; advising them on testing, treating, and managing the outbreak; and standing up digital and data systems that support real-time disease surveillance. Learn more about our work at