Background: International data on child maltreatment are largely derived from child protection agencies, and predominantly report only substantiated cases of child maltreatment. This approach underestimates the incidence of maltreatment and makes inter-jurisdictional comparisons difficult. There has been a growing recognition of the importance of health professionals in identifying, documenting and reporting suspected child maltreatment. This study aimed to describe the issues around case identification using coded morbidity data, outline methods for selecting and grouping relevant codes, and illustrate patterns of maltreatment identified.
Methods: A comprehensive review of the ICD-10-AM classification system was undertaken, including review of index terms, a free text search of tabular volumes, and a review of coding standards pertaining to child maltreatment coding. Identified codes were further categorised into maltreatment types including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, and neglect. Using these code groupings, one year of Australian hospitalisation data for children under 18 years of age was examined to quantify the proportion of patients identified and to explore the characteristics of cases assigned maltreatment-related codes.
Results: Less than 0.5% of children hospitalised in Australia between 2005 and 2006 had a maltreatment code assigned, almost 4% of children with a principal diagnosis of a mental and behavioural disorder and over 1% of children with an injury or poisoning as the principal diagnosis had a maltreatment code assigned. The patterns of children assigned with definitive T74 codes varied by sex and age group. For males selected as having a maltreatment-related presentation, physical abuse was most commonly coded (62.6% of maltreatment cases) while for females selected as having a maltreatment-related presentation, sexual abuse was the most commonly assigned form of maltreatment (52.9% of maltreatment cases).
Conclusion: This study has demonstrated that hospital data could provide valuable information for routine monitoring and surveillance of child maltreatment, even in the absence of population-based linked data sources. With national and international calls for a public health response to child maltreatment, better understanding of, investment in and utilisation of our core national routinely collected data sources will enhance the evidence-base needed to support an appropriate response to children at risk.