Objectives. We tested telephone-based disease surveillance systems in local health departments to identify system characteristics associated with consistent and timely responses to urgent case reports. Methods. We identified a stratified random sample of 74 health departments and conducted a series of unannounced tests of their telephone-based surveillance systems. We used regression analyses to identify system characteristics that predicted fast connection with an action officer (an appropriate public health professional). Results. Optimal performance in consistently connecting callers with an action officer in 30 minutes or less was achieved by 31% of participating health departments. Reaching a live person upon dialing, regardless of who that person was, was the strongest predictor of optimal performance both in being connected with an action officer and in consistency of connection times. Conclusions. Health departments can achieve optimal performance in consistently connecting a caller with an action officer in 30 minutes or less and may improve performance by using a telephone-based disease surveillance system in which the phone is answered by a live person at all times.
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