Publications & Reports

Privacy-Preserving Record Linkage of Deidentified Records Within a Public Health Surveillance System: Evaluation Study.

Nguyen L, Stoové M, Boyle D, Callander D, McManus H, Asselin J, Guy R, Donovan B, Hellard M, El-Hayek C
Burnet Institute, Melbourne, Australia.


BACKGROUND: The Australian Collaboration for Coordinated Enhanced Sentinel Surveillance (ACCESS) was established to monitor national testing and test outcomes for blood-borne viruses (BBVs) and sexually transmissible infections (STIs) in key populations. ACCESS extracts deidentified data from sentinel health services that include general practice, sexual health, and infectious disease clinics, as well as public and private laboratories that conduct a large volume of BBV/STI testing. An important attribute of ACCESS is the ability to accurately link individual-level records within and between the participating sites, as this enables the system to produce reliable epidemiological measures. OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study was to evaluate the use of GRHANITE software in ACCESS to extract and link deidentified data from participating clinics and laboratories. GRHANITE generates irreversible hashed linkage keys based on patient-identifying data captured in the patient electronic medical records (EMRs) at the site. The algorithms to produce the data linkage keys use probabilistic linkage principles to account for variability and completeness of the underlying patient identifiers, producing up to four linkage key types per EMR. Errors in the linkage process can arise from imperfect or missing identifiers, impacting the system’s integrity. Therefore, it is important to evaluate the quality of the linkages created and evaluate the outcome of the linkage for ongoing public health surveillance. METHODS: Although ACCESS data are deidentified, we created two gold-standard datasets where the true match status could be confirmed in order to compare against record linkage results arising from different approaches of the GRHANITE Linkage Tool. We reported sensitivity, specificity, and positive and negative predictive values where possible and estimated specificity by comparing a history of HIV and hepatitis C antibody results for linked EMRs. RESULTS: Sensitivity ranged from 96% to 100%, and specificity was 100% when applying the GRHANITE Linkage Tool to a small gold-standard dataset of 3700 clinical medical records. Medical records in this dataset contained a very high level of data completeness by having the name, date of birth, post code, and Medicare number available for use in record linkage. In a larger gold-standard dataset containing 86,538 medical records across clinics and pathology services, with a lower level of data completeness, sensitivity ranged from 94% to 95% and estimated specificity ranged from 91% to 99% in 4 of the 6 different record linkage approaches. CONCLUSIONS: This study’s findings suggest that the GRHANITE Linkage Tool can be used to link deidentified patient records accurately and can be confidently used for public health surveillance in systems such as ACCESS.

Link to publisher’s web site

ACCESS is a partnership between the Burnet Institute, Kirby Institute and National Reference Laboratory. ACCESS is funded by the Australia Department of Health. ACCESS also receives funding from specific studies, including EC Victoria, EC Australia, and PrEPX. The Burnet Institute gratefully acknowledges support from the Victorian Operational Infrastructure Support Program.


  • Journal: Journal of Medical Internet Research
  • Published: 24/06/2020
  • Volume: 22
  • Issue: 6
  • Pagination: e16757