Optimising use of electronic health records to describe the presentation of rheumatoid arthritis in primary care: a strategy for developing code lists

PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e54878. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054878. Epub 2013 Feb 22.


Background: Research using electronic health records (EHRs) relies heavily on coded clinical data. Due to variation in coding practices, it can be difficult to aggregate the codes for a condition in order to define cases. This paper describes a methodology to develop 'indicator markers' found in patients with early rheumatoid arthritis (RA); these are a broader range of codes which may allow a probabilistic case definition to use in cases where no diagnostic code is yet recorded.

Methods: We examined EHRs of 5,843 patients in the General Practice Research Database, aged ≥ 30 y, with a first coded diagnosis of RA between 2005 and 2008. Lists of indicator markers for RA were developed initially by panels of clinicians drawing up code-lists and then modified based on scrutiny of available data. The prevalence of indicator markers, and their temporal relationship to RA codes, was examined in patients from 3 y before to 14 d after recorded RA diagnosis.

Findings: Indicator markers were common throughout EHRs of RA patients, with 83.5% having 2 or more markers. 34% of patients received a disease-specific prescription before RA was coded; 42% had a referral to rheumatology, and 63% had a test for rheumatoid factor. 65% had at least one joint symptom or sign recorded and in 44% this was at least 6-months before recorded RA diagnosis.

Conclusion: Indicator markers of RA may be valuable for case definition in cases which do not yet have a diagnostic code. The clinical diagnosis of RA is likely to occur some months before it is coded, shown by markers frequently occurring ≥ 6 months before recorded diagnosis. It is difficult to differentiate delay in diagnosis from delay in recording. Information concealed in free text may be required for the accurate identification of patients and to assess the quality of care in general practice.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / diagnosis*
  • Clinical Coding / methods*
  • Electronic Health Records*
  • Humans
  • Primary Health Care / methods*