MANILA, Philippines — Health Secretary Francisco Duque III should not play down the discrepancies that a team of researchers from the University of the Philippines (UP) had discovered in the official data of the Department of Health (DOH) on new coronavirus cases in the country, several senators said on Wednesday.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson pointed out that the data that the DOH had been providing to policymakers like the senators was critical in drawing up policies in combating the new coronavirus that causes the severe respiratory disease COVID-19.
“Data accuracy is key to correct and sound decision-making. This is an age-old tenet in management, which is not only logical but simple enough,” Lacson said in a Viber message.
“Whether inadvertently committed or otherwise, it is reason enough to make people responsible and accountable. What is abominable is if such act is committed deliberately in pursuit of some selfish reasons or interests,” he said.
On Tuesday, the UP COVID-19 Response Team pointed out “alarming errors” in the DOH’s patient data. These included 45 cases whose gender was changed, 75 patients whose age changed overnight, 516 cases who were reassigned to a different residence, and a patient who was reported to have died but was actually alive.
On Wednesday, Duque said the DOH had corrected the errors, which were found in the agency’s reports for April 24 and 25, but did not explain how the errors occurred.
He, however, said the DOH continued to improve its data collection and reporting systems.
Stephanie Sy, founder and CEO of Thinking Machines, a private data science partner of the DOH, said the inconsistencies were due to either encoding errors or mistakes of the hospitals, which filled out and submitted patients’ case forms.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said errors in patients’ data would create bigger problems in the government’s efforts to trace efficiently the contacts of COVID-19 patients.
“[Duque] cannot just say that the [discrepancies were not significant. Significant or not, [the data] is still wrong. They should be careful,” Sotto said in an online press briefing.
“The DOH should learn its lesson from this mistake and make sure their people don’t commit the same mistake again,” he said.
Sotto said any error in the actual figures on COVID-19 cases would have “a very significant implication [on the] reliability of their scientific analysis” of the pandemic.
Asked if the incident highlighted the senators’ call for Duque’s resignation, the Senate leader said: “This contributes to the reason why it [is] necessary.”
When asked if the Senate resolution demanding Duque’s head was able to “wake up” the health secretary, he said: “Let’s just say that [his] eyes have been opened, but [he has] yet to get up.”
Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian shared Lacson’s position, adding that having accurate information was basic in ensuring good government.
“Garbage in, garbage out. If [the] DOH is feeding garbage data to decision-makers, expect garbage decisions from [the] government,” Gatchalian said.
“(The) DOH should … employ the best technology and talent to automate data collection, data processing and data analysis. Manual data collection will definitely lead to errors, and errors may lead to loss of lives in a pandemic,” he added.
Duque said the DOH was rolling out a new epidemiological surveillance information system that was developed by the World Health Organization’s Philippine office.
The new system automates a number of data collection processes and helps minimize encoding errors.
On Wednesday, the DOH reported 268 new coronavirus cases, pushing the national total to 11,618. It said 145 more patients had recovered, raising the total number of survivors to 2,251. But the death toll increased to 772 with the deaths of 21 more patients.
—WITH A REPORT FROM JOVIC YEE
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