Data
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - September 17, 2020 - 12:00am

Twice over the last few days, the Department of Health (DOH) reported very sharp spikes in deaths attributed to COVID-19. In another setting, this could have sparked great alarm among our citizens.

The very sharp spikes, the DOH sheepishly explained, happened because several hundred individuals earlier reported as having recovered were actually dead. The spikes reflected the reclassification required.

Those who work with data are flabbergasted. How could so many fatalities be erroneously reported as having recovered?

This is not the first time we were scandalized by the sloppiness with which the DOH handles data.

About two months ago, the DOH treated us to the spectacle of a running tally differentiating between “new” and “late” cases. Some of the “late” cases added to the tally were said to be months old.

Then the DOH began reporting “recoveries” in the tens of thousands in a single day. Apparently, they were accumulating reports of recoveries in some black hole and then reporting them in large blocks. The erratic reporting of recoveries soon became the butt of memes.

The past few days, the spikes in the number of new infections are attributed to a number of labs reporting late. But this was the problem many months ago, when the DOH was reporting “new” and “late” cases.

Database management has evolved into a really simple undertaking. There are varieties of software available to do the task.

The problem seems to lie in the inability of the DOH to enforce reporting deadlines on the 120 or so labs now in operation. In which case, this is an enforcement problem and the police might be better disposed to deal with it.

In a large-scale health emergency such as what we are dealing with, the promptness and the accuracy of data is vital. As we adjust policies and protocols on a day-to-day basis, missing data cripples the entire effort to adequately respond to the emergency.

It is not too late for the DOH to consider outsourcing data management for this pandemic. They should not be embarrassed to do so. Doctors, after all, are not famous for being nimble with numbers.

More than just getting the numbers promptly, more competent data management should be able to give us more demographic information to sharpen our response. The more detailed demographic information will allow us to pinpoint not just municipalities but social groups vulnerable to infections. That will enable a more proactive response.

Without accurate and timely information, we will be fighting this critical battle blind as a bat. Perhaps that is what we have been doing all along despite all talk of more “granular” responses.

Insufficient

A motley group composed mostly of politicians has been after Health Secretary Francisco Duque’s scalp for months now. We were never really told exactly why.

It could not be because they were looking for a fall guy to blame for the quality of our response to the pandemic. But while our national response has not been spectacular, it has not been a miserable failure either.

In the global comparisons, we have mediocre infection numbers and an unremarkable response. This is understandable, considering we started with a weak public health system and scarce resources to fight the pandemic.

Those who want Duque ousted did not conceal their disappointment when neither the Senate committee of the whole report nor the investigation conducted in the executive branch found anything that would merit charging the Secretary of Health for the mess that plagued PhilHealth. Criminal charges are recommended to be filed against nearly all the senior officers of the agency – but not for the members of the board, most sitting ex-officio with no hand in corporate operations.

Even the legislator most adamant in seeing PhilHealth thoroughly cleansed spoke soberly about Duque’s accountability. “(T)here may not be enough evidence to recommend criminal charges against Sec. Duque,” said Senator Panfilo Lacson in an interview.

“(L)ike the other members of the PhilHealth board,” Lacson added, “he (Duque) had no hand in the illegal implementation of the IRM, nor was he involved in the procurement of overpriced IT equipment.” Indeed, Duque’s signature does not appear in any of the questionable documents and he was not even present when the policy decision was made to implement the Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM) that appears to be central to accusations PhilHealth funds were mishandled.

The IRM might have seemed, to the senior officers of the agency, a most practical way to expedite disbursement of funds needed by hospitals to support the fight against the pandemic. This mechanism, according to some, is vulnerable to corruption.

Blue Ribbon committee chair Richard Gordon appears to share Lacson’s position. “In my view,” he said, “whenever I make any accusations, I make sure that I have a piece of paper that supports it.” No such piece of paper exists to link Duque to any alleged corruption at PhilHealth.

In a word, there is insufficient evidence that might link Duque to anything that might have gone wrong at PhilHealth – however much some political players might want to link him to the controversy. As ex-officio chairman of the board, of course, the health secretary might still be accused of some degree of negligence. But that will be a far cry from, as one hysterical accuser put it, being “head of the mafia” that plundered this agency.

President Duterte reiterated his trust in his health secretary. The former head of the NBI has been installed as PhilHealth president. Soon, we might be looking at PhilHealth’s problems in better proportion.

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