Published: 22/08/2002, Volume II2, No. 5819 Page 9

The trust at the centre of the UK's biggest ever outbreak of Legionnaire's disease, Morecambe Bay Hospitals trust, has pioneered the use of patient-tracking systems that could be used in major incidents elsewhere.

Barrow's Furness General Hospital has treated 131 confirmed cases of the disease and seen four deaths. Over 2,000 tests have been carried out The logistical difficulties of the operation have been helped by ground-breaking IT support, combining early use of the NHS Information Authority's national strategic tracing service with the use of two software packages to track hospital inpatients and callers to the Legionnaire's disease helpline. The tracing service was designed by the NHS Information Authority and gives rapid access to patients'GP details.

Steve Fairclough, head of information systems at Morecambe Bay Hospitals trust, said: 'This is a huge operation. Normally, major incidents last for a couple of days, but we have been dealing with this one since 2 August. In the hospital's major incident room, We have set up a whole series of PCs connected to the hospital's network.

'We have also set up the patient helpline. The Information Authority contacted us to see if we wanted an accelerated release of the national strategic tracing service, which has been piloted in few hospitals across the country.

'It allows us to identify accurate demographic details based on a patient's surname and date of birth, and lets us quickly communicate test results back to the correct GP. That is particularly important because we have patients farmed out to half a dozen hospitals in Chorley, Lancaster, Preston and Blackpool.'

The trust's IT team - six engineers and four senior managers - has also worked 12-15 hour days to devise and run their own systems for tracking inpatients and callers using the trust's helpline.

The inpatient tracker records pathology results and current medical status. The helpline tracker records the details of those who have called the helpline.

'These systems mean we have a handle on all the important information, and that allows us to get the information we need.We will quite gladly share these systems once this whole thing starts to calm down, ' said Mr Fairclough.

'We are aiming to make it a bit more generic so that it could deal with any major incident and make it available to the Department of Health.'

Morecambe Bay Hospitals trust chief executive Ian Cumming paid tribute to all the staff involved in fighting the outbreak. He said:

'The way in which staff at this small district general hospital have coped with one of the largest ever outbreaks of Legionnella worldwide has, in my opinion, been nothing short of remarkable.'