Although immediate notification of a case is crucial for epidemic control, clinicians may delay notification due to uncertainties in diagnosis, reflecting a trade-off between timeliness and the accuracy of surveillance. We assessed this trade-off for four epidemic-prone diseases that require immediate notification of suspected cases: shigellosis, typhoid fever, paratyphoid fever, and cholera in the Korean National Notifiable Disease Surveillance System data for 2001–2007. Timeliness was measured as the time to registration (TR), being the time interval from symptom onset to notification by the clinician to the local public health centre. We introduced a new index, ‘time-accuracy trade-off ratio’ to indicate time saved by clinical vs. laboratory-based notifications. Clinical notifications comprised 34·4% of total notifications, and these showed a shorter median TR than laboratory-based notifications (1–4 days). The trade-off ratio was greatest for shigellosis (3·3 days), and smallest for typhoid fever (0·6 days). A higher trade-off ratio provides stronger evidence for clinical notification without waiting for laboratory confirmation.