Data collection for outbreak investigations: process for defining a minimal data set using a Delphi approach

BMC Public Health
13 Dec 2021
Perrocheau A, Brindle H, Roberts C, Murthy S, Shetty S, Martin AIC, Marks M, Schenkel K; Minimum Variables for Outbreak Investigation Working Group of the WHO Outbreak Toolkit project



Timely but accurate data collection is needed during health emergencies to inform public health responses. Often, an abundance of data is collected but not used. When outbreaks and other health events occur in remote and complex settings, operatives on the ground are often required to cover multiple tasks whilst working with limited resources. Tools that facilitate the collection of essential data during the early investigations of a potential public health event can support effective public health decision-making. We proposed to define the minimum set of quantitative information to collect whilst using electronic device or not. Here we present the process used to select the minimum information required to describe an outbreak of any cause during its initial stages and occurring in remote settings.


A working group of epidemiologists took part in two rounds of a Delphi process to categorise the variables to be included in an initial outbreak investigation form. This took place between January–June 2019 using an online survey.


At a threshold of 75 %, consensus was reached for nineteen (23.2%) variables which were all classified as ‘essential’. This increased to twenty-six (31.7%) variables when the threshold was reduced to 60% with all but one variable classified as ‘essential’. Twenty-five of these variables were included in the ‘Time zero initial case investigation’ ‘(T0)’ form which was shared with the members of the Rapid Response Team Knowledge Network for field testing and feedback. The form has been readily available online by WHO since September 2019.


This is the first known Delphi process used to determine the minimum variables needed for an outbreak investigation. The subsequent development of the T0 form should help to improve the efficiency and standardisation of data collection during emergencies and ultimately the quality of the data collected during field investigation.