When Sydney bus driver Ke Hua turned up to Royal Prince Alfred hospital last week for his Covid-19 vaccination, he was given some surprising news.
The nurses told him he was already fully vaccinated.
Relying on the Australian Immunisation Register (the Air), the national database of vaccination records, hospital staff told him he had received his first dose on 26 March and his second on 18 June.
There was just one problem: the record was completely wrong. He hadn’t had any dose.
“I went on the 24th of July and they said ‘oh in March you got one, and in June you got one’,” Hua told the Guardian. “I said ‘I’ve never done it!’.”
While Hua, 58, was able to convince the nurses to ignore the records and give him the jab, he was concerned about the error.
He called NSW Health, Medicare, and even the local police, believing someone may have fraudulently used his details.
He was brushed off.
Hua was trying to alert whoever was responsible that the mistake could be affecting others, too.
Such problems, if widespread, would greatly undermine the vaccine rollout.
“That’s what I was concerned about,” he said. “That’s why I was calling them.”
Finally, after queries by Guardian Australia, he was called by health authorities, who said someone must have inadvertently entered a stranger’s vaccinations into his record.
The explanation does not make sense to Hua.
“How can they put someone else in my record?” Hua said. “The record states my number and my name, and to put it in they have to get all my information to put it in the computer.”
The system is supposed to be both secure and designed to prevent providers entering inaccurate information.
Services Australia, which manages the Air, says there are “specific systems and processes” to ensure vaccination providers enter accurate information about a person’s vaccination.
“The provider is responsible for ensuring the information is correct,” a spokeswoman said.
The department said it took all data quality issues seriously and recognised “the need for accurate and up-to-date data on an individual’s immunisation record”.
“We work closely with the Department of Health to provide support for vaccination providers, making it as easy as possible to report quality information to the Air,” the spokeswoman said. “To further increase the accuracy of records held on the Air, improvements have been made to the online Air systems to include ‘real time’ assessment of immunisation data submitted by vaccination providers.”
Services Australia did not respond to a question about whether it had received widespread reports of errors with the Air.
Accurate records of Covid-19 vaccination are likely to be critical as the world begins to open up. Countries are likely to adopt vaccine passports at their borders and also restrict those who can participate in social activities and employment by their vaccination status.
Yet past studies of the Air have found it is subject to significant error rates. A 2018 study that looked at the accuracy of Air records for childhood immunisation found 14% were inaccurate.
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The error rate ranged from 3% in Victoria to 29% in New South Wales.
The most common error was caused by the failure to transfer vaccination information from the software used by practice management to the Air. About 26% of these cases were caused by data entry errors by staff at the practices.
Duplicate records, website errors, and the use of paper records also caused inaccurate information on the register.