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Open Access Research article

Potential application of item-response theory to interpretation of medical codes in electronic patient records

Alex Dregan1*, Andy Grieve1, Tjeerd van Staa23, Martin C Gulliford1 and the eCRT Research Team

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Primary Care and Public Health Sciences, King's College London, 42 Weston Street, London, SE1 3QD, UK

2 Division of General Practice Research Database, Medicines and Healthcare Products, Regulatory Agency, 151 Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1W 9SZ, UK

3 Utrecht Institute for Pharmaceutical Sciences, Utrecht University, 3508 Utrecht, the Netherlands

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2011, 11:168  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-168

Published: 16 December 2011



Electronic patient records are generally coded using extensive sets of codes but the significance of the utilisation of individual codes may be unclear. Item response theory (IRT) models are used to characterise the psychometric properties of items included in tests and questionnaires. This study asked whether the properties of medical codes in electronic patient records may be characterised through the application of item response theory models.


Data were provided by a cohort of 47,845 participants from 414 family practices in the UK General Practice Research Database (GPRD) with a first stroke between 1997 and 2006. Each eligible stroke code, out of a set of 202 OXMIS and Read codes, was coded as either recorded or not recorded for each participant. A two parameter IRT model was fitted using marginal maximum likelihood estimation. Estimated parameters from the model were considered to characterise each code with respect to the latent trait of stroke diagnosis. The location parameter is referred to as a calibration parameter, while the slope parameter is referred to as a discrimination parameter.


There were 79,874 stroke code occurrences available for analysis. Utilisation of codes varied between family practices with intraclass correlation coefficients of up to 0.25 for the most frequently used codes. IRT analyses were restricted to 110 Read codes. Calibration and discrimination parameters were estimated for 77 (70%) codes that were endorsed for 1,942 stroke patients. Parameters were not estimated for the remaining more frequently used codes. Discrimination parameter values ranged from 0.67 to 2.78, while calibration parameters values ranged from 4.47 to 11.58. The two parameter model gave a better fit to the data than either the one- or three-parameter models. However, high chi-square values for about a fifth of the stroke codes were suggestive of poor item fit.


The application of item response theory models to coded electronic patient records might potentially contribute to identifying medical codes that offer poor discrimination or low calibration. This might indicate the need for improved coding sets or a requirement for improved clinical coding practice. However, in this study estimates were only obtained for a small proportion of participants and there was some evidence of poor model fit. There was also evidence of variation in the utilisation of codes between family practices raising the possibility that, in practice, properties of codes may vary for different coders.