Administrative health data in Canada: lessons from history

BMC Med Inform Decis Mak. 2015 Aug 19:15:69. doi: 10.1186/s12911-015-0196-9.


Background: Health decision-making requires evidence from high-quality data. As one example, the Discharge Abstract Database (DAD) compiles data from the majority of Canadian hospitals to form one of the most comprehensive and highly regarded administrative health databases available for health research, internationally. However, despite the success of this and other administrative health data resources, little is known about their history or the factors that have led to their success. The purpose of this paper is to provide an historical overview of Canadian administrative health data for health research to contribute to the institutional memory of this field.

Methods: We conducted a qualitative content analysis of approximately 20 key sources to construct an historical narrative of administrative health data in Canada. Specifically, we searched for content related to key events, individuals, challenges, and successes in this field over time.

Results: In Canada, administrative health data for health research has developed in tangent with provincial research centres. Interestingly, the lessons learned from this history align with the original recommendations of the 1964 Royal Commission on Health Services: (1) standardization, and (2) centralization of data resources, that is (3) facilitated through governmental financial support.

Conclusions: The overview history provided here illustrates the need for longstanding partnerships between government and academia, for classification, terminology and standardization are time-consuming and ever-evolving processes. This paper will be of interest to those who work with administrative health data, and also for countries that are looking to build or improve upon their use of administrative health data for decision-making.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Canada
  • Health Services Research / history*
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Medical Informatics / history*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Registries / statistics & numerical data*
  • Statistics as Topic / history*