Linkage of medical databases, including insurer claims and electronic health records (EHRs), is increasingly common. However, few studies have investigated the behavior and output of linkage software. To determine how linkage quality is affected by different algorithms, blocking variables, methods for string matching and weight determination, and decision rules, we compared the performance of 4 nonproprietary linkage software packages linking patient identifiers from noninteroperable inpatient and outpatient EHRs. We linked datasets using first and last name, gender, and date of birth (DOB). We evaluated DOB and year of birth (YOB) as blocking variables and used exact and inexact matching methods. We compared the weights assigned to record pairs and evaluated how matching weights corresponded to a gold standard, medical record number. Deduplicated datasets contained 69,523 inpatient and 176,154 outpatient records, respectively. Linkage runs blocking on DOB produced weights ranging in number from 8 for exact matching to 64,273 for inexact matching. Linkage runs blocking on YOB produced 8 to 916,806 weights. Exact matching matched record pairs with identical test characteristics (sensitivity 90.48%, specificity 99.78%) for the highest ranked group, but algorithms differentially prioritized certain variables. Inexact matching behaved more variably, leading to dramatic differences in sensitivity (range 0.04-93.36%) and positive predictive value (PPV) (range 86.67-97.35%), even for the most highly ranked record pairs. Blocking on DOB led to higher PPV of highly ranked record pairs. An ensemble approach based on averaging scaled matching weights led to modestly improved accuracy. In summary, we found few differences in the rankings of record pairs with the highest matching weights across 4 linkage packages. Performance was more consistent for exact string matching than for inexact string matching. Most methods and software packages performed similarly when comparing matching accuracy with the gold standard. In some settings, an ensemble matching approach may outperform individual linkage algorithms.
Recommended CitationKarr, Alan F.; Taylor, Matthew T.; West, Suzanne L.; Setoguchi, Soko; Kou, Tzuyung D.; Gerhard, Tobias; and Horton, Daniel B., "Comparing record linkage software programs and algorithms using real-world data." (2019). Student Papers & Posters. Paper 40.
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