Denmark has long been at the vanguard of digitalisation, most notably in the form of comprehensive national health registries. This well-established footprint gave the Nordic nation a headstart in battling the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and beyond and can be accredited with Denmark’s relatively successful identification, testing, and vaccination processes.
Lisbeth Nielsen, director general of the Danish Health Data Authority explains that, at the outset of the pandemic, “Both data and data flows were reworked to allow data to be provided on a significantly more frequent basis such as twice a day.” She continues, “The entire digital infrastructure [in Denmark] supported the strategy for testing the public and allowed for free and easily accessible tests anywhere in the country. The threshold of the testing for both the PCR test and the antigen test was kept low, which is counterintuitive to normal healthcare system practices due to the possibility of overwhelming the system. In the case of a positive result, the patient then received information regarding the need to isolate as well as the health advice from their doctor at the same time. This strategy empowered the population to help themselves while freeing time to follow up on those requiring additional instruction or care.”
The entire digital infrastructure [in Denmark] supported the strategy for testing the public and allowed for free and easily accessible tests anywhere in the country
Well-established private-sector actors, such as software and systems provider Systematic, were also crucial in the rollout of this comprehensive testing program. “At the outset of the pandemic, it was clear that our solutions had the potential to assist the national authorities, so we made them freely available to the Danish Health Authorities,” outlines the firm’s SVP Henrik Jespersen. “Within a month, we had assisted the authorities to digitalize the Test Centre Denmark facility to provide an overview of key data such as hospital capacity, PPE, testing etc, which represented a strong pandemic control solution. Together with the Danish Patient Safety Authority, we were able to develop a system for the tracking of contacts, infections, variants, and infections during i.e. travel. Data insights from the system are also used to get an overview of the development in the pandemic.”
Denmark’s successful vaccination campaign (86.7 percent of the population fully vaccinated as of December 1st, 2021 according to the Health Data Authority) and low death rates (471 deaths from COVID-19 per one million people compared to 2,126 in the UK and 2,303 in the US as per Rebecca Adler-Nissen, Sune Lehmann, and Andreas Roepstorff in the New York Times) were also given a helping hand by the country’s well-established digital infrastructure.
“Access to vaccinations was initially deliberately restricted due to the limited number of doses available,” highlights Nielsen. “The vaccination program was centrally controlled, and personal invitations were sent to citizens in their digital post to book the vaccine appointment online in order of vulnerable groups, followed by age groups. The registration into the vaccination registers at the point of care allowed for real-time data on progress. Denmark’s success in fighting the pandemic can be credited to vaccinating the right people in the right order as well as making vaccination centres readily available across the country.”
“In the words of the National Health Authority, there are three main reasons why Denmark has coped relatively well with the pandemic,” adds Jespersen. “Firstly, Danes are very disciplined when it comes to social distancing and we trust and follow the recommendations provided. Secondly, we tested, tested, and tested again, and invested a lot in a very comprehensive test facility. Thirdly, we already had a high level of digitisation and could rapidly be expanded, with strong IT support that made sure we knew what was going on. Even today, we can show heat maps of infections and our system is being used to brief the Prime Minister and the Health Authority.”
Within a month, we had assisted the authorities to digitalize the Test Centre Denmark facility to provide an overview of key data such as hospital capacity, PPE, testing etc, which represented a strong pandemic control solution
Non-Danes have been impressed at this success. British national Catherine Williams, the managing director for US pharma giant MSD’s operations in Denmark and Iceland, proclaims that, “The way that Denmark has handled the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that it is a closely-knit society with great trust in authorities. This can be seen in the sharing of health data and fast adaptation of new digital solutions as the first EU country to launch a digital COVID passport and other digital tools to limit the spread of the virus. I am confident that this is part of the reason behind Denmark being one of the very first countries in the EU to more or less fully reopen before summer.”
Looking forward, both Nielsen and Jespersen highlight the public-private sector collaboration built up during the pandemic as something that can be leveraged in the future. “The close cooperation across all levels of healthcare and levels of government has helped the country’s successful fight against the pandemic,” posits Nielsen. “Therefore, the continued ability to work together to the same extent for issues following the pandemic can allow Denmark’s government to make significant and positive changes for the country.”
Systematic’s Jespersen adds, “The background for this project is, of course, horrible, but it was fantastic to see how we could work together with the authorities in such an agile solution-oriented manner. For example, when variants became an issue, we worked out how to digitalize the segmentation of all tests to get an overview of trends… Additionally, looking internationally, countries that have been hit hard by the pandemic, especially in southern Europe, are now much more eager to learn from Denmark and our digitalised systems.”