The aim of this study was to assess the accuracy and utility of administrative health data in identifying persons with inflammatory bowel disease on a population basis and to determine the incidence and prevalence of this disease in the Canadian province of Manitoba. The data from Manitoba Health (the province's single insurer) were used to identify residents with physician and/or hospital contacts for Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis based on International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision, Clinical Modification, codes between 1984 and 1995. Of 5,182 eligible individuals, 4,514 were mailed questionnaires and 2,725 responded. Cases were defined as individuals with five or more separate medical contacts with one of these diagnoses or three or more such contacts if they were resident for less than 2 years. The accuracy of the study case definitions was high when compared with either self-report or chart review. The 1989-1994 age- and sex-adjusted annual incidence was 14.6/100,000 for Crohn's disease and 14.3/100,000 for ulcerative colitis. The prevalence of Crohn's disease in 1994 was 198.5/100,000, and that of ulcerative colitis was 169.7/100,000. In conclusion, the authors have successfully established and validated a population-based database of inflammatory bowel disease based on administrative data. The high incidence rates and dynamic epidemiology of inflammatory bowel disease in Manitoba indicate the presence of important environmental risk factors, which warrants further investigation.