Data linkage using probabilistic decision rules: a primer

Birth Defects Res A Clin Mol Teratol. 2008 Nov;82(11):812-21. doi: 10.1002/bdra.20510.


Electronic data linkage is increasingly being used by researchers and health professionals in the birth defects field as a tool for enhancing both research and service/care. However, in many cases, a common pre-existing ID number does not exist across different datasets, and common identifiers, such as names or dates of birth, which could be used to match records, may be known to contain errors or even legitimate differences over time. In such situations, probabilistic matching, which does not require that all identifying fields exactly agree in order for one to conclude that two records belong to the same individual, can be a valuable tool for improving data linkage. However, probabilistic matching is computationally complex and demanding, and not well understood by many who may wish to apply it in their work. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to provide an overview of one approach to probabilistic matching, including the step-by-step procedures involved in the calculation of indices corresponding to the likelihood that two records are a correct match. In addition, the use of multiple iterative protocols, in which several different matching strategies are used in order to maximize the number of linked records, is discussed. Finally, issues related to deduplication and verification of internal-consistency in the linked data set are also reviewed.

MeSH terms

  • Databases, Factual*
  • Decision Making*
  • Humans
  • Medical Record Linkage / methods*
  • Probability Learning*
  • Statistics as Topic / methods*