The Netherlands, like most European countries, has a robust influenza surveillance system in primary care. However, there is a lack of real-time nationally representative data on hospital admissions for complications of influenza. Anecdotal information about hospital capacity problems during influenza epidemics can, therefore, not be substantiated.
The aim of this study was to assess whether media reports could provide relevant information for estimating the impact of influenza on hospital capacity, in the absence of hospital surveillance data.
Dutch news articles on influenza in hospitals during the influenza season (week 40 of 2017 until week 20 of 2018) were searched in a Web-based media monitoring program (Coosto). Trends in the number of weekly articles were compared with trends in 5 different influenza surveillance systems. A content analysis was performed on a selection of news articles, and information on the hospital, department, problem, and preventive or response measures was collected.
The trend in weekly news articles correlated significantly with the trends in all 5 surveillance systems, including severe acute respiratory infections (SARI) surveillance. However, the peak in all 5 surveillance systems preceded the peak in news articles. Content analysis showed hospitals (N=69) had major capacity problems (46/69, 67%), resulting in admission stops (9/46, 20%), postponement of nonurgent surgical procedures (29/46, 63%), or both (8/46, 17%). Only few hospitals reported the use of point-of-care testing (5/69, 7%) or a separate influenza ward (3/69, 4%) to accelerate clinical management, but most resorted to ad hoc crisis management (34/69, 49%).
Media reports showed that the 2017/2018 influenza epidemic caused serious problems in hospitals throughout the country. However, because of the time lag in media reporting, it is not a suitable alternative for near real-time SARI surveillance. A robust SARI surveillance program is important to inform decision making.

©Daphne FM Reukers, Sierk D Marbus, Hella Smit, Peter Schneeberger, Gé Donker, Wim van der Hoek, Arianne B van Gageldonk-Lafeber. Originally published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance (http://publichealth.jmir.org), 04.03.2020.