BACKGROUND: People who inject drugs (PWID) have been identified as frequent users of emergency department (ED) and hospital inpatient services. The specific challenges of record linkage in cohorts with numerous administrative health records occurring in close proximity are not well understood. Here, we present a method for patient-specific record linkage of ED and hospital admission data for a cohort of PWID. METHODS: Data from 688 PWID were linked to two state-wide administrative health databases identifying all ED visits and hospital admissions for the cohort between January 2008 and June 2013. We linked patient-specific ED and hospital admissions data, using administrative date-time timestamps and pre-specified linkage criteria, to identify hospital admissions stemming from ED presentations for a given individual. The ability of standalone databases to identify linked ED visits or hospital admissions was examined. RESULTS: There were 3459 ED visits and 1877 hospital admissions identified during the study period. Thirty-four percent of ED visits were linked to hospital admissions. Most links had hospital admission timestamps in-between or identical to their ED visit timestamps (n = 1035, 87%). Allowing 24-h between ED visits and hospital admissions captured more linked records, but increased manual inspection requirements. In linked records (n = 1190), the ED ‘departure status’ variable correctly reflected subsequent hospital admission in only 68% of cases. The hospital ‘admission type’ variable was non-specific in identifying if a preceding ED visit had occurred. CONCLUSIONS: Linking ED visits with subsequent hospital admissions in PWID requires access to date and time variables for accurate temporal sorting, especially for same-day presentations. Selecting time-windows to capture linked records requires discretion. Researchers risk under-ascertainment of hospital admissions if using ED data alone.
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