The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of routine syndromic surveillance of respiratory infections, specifically new cases of severe acute respiratory infection (SARI). This surveillance often relies on questionnaires carried out by research nurses or transcriptions of doctor's notes, but existing, routinely collected electronic healthcare data sets are increasingly being used for such surveillance. We investigated how patient diagnosis codes, recorded within such data sets, could be used to capture SARI trends in Scotland.

Study design

We conducted a retrospective observational study using electronic healthcare data sets between 2017 and 2022.


Sensitive, specific and timely case definition (CDs) based on patient diagnosis codes contained within national registers in Scotland were proposed to identify SARI cases. Representativeness and sensitivity analyses were performed to assess how well SARI cases captured by each definition matched trends in historic influenza and SARS-CoV-2 data.


All CDs accurately captured the peaks seen in laboratory-confirmed positive influenza and SARS-CoV-2 data, although the completeness of patient diagnosis records was discovered to vary widely. The timely CD provided the earliest detection of changes in SARI activity, whilst the sensitive CD provided insight into the burden and severity of SARI infections.


A universal SARI surveillance system has been developed and demonstrated to accurately capture seasonal SARI trends. It can be used as an indicator of emerging secondary care burden of emerging SARI outbreaks. The system further strengthens Scotland's existing strategies for respiratory surveillance, and the methods described here can be applied within any country with suitable electronic patient records.


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Cite as

Wells, J., Young, J., Harvey, C., Mutch, H., McPhail, D., Young, N., Wallace, L., Ladbury, G., Murray, J. & Evans, J. 2022, 'Real-time surveillance of severe acute respiratory infections in Scottish hospitals: an electronic register-based approach, 2017–2022', Public Health, 213, pp. 5-11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.puhe.2022.09.003

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Last updated: 03 May 2024
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