Open Access Research article

Automated data extraction from general practice records in an Australian setting: Trends in influenza-like illness in sentinel general practices and emergency departments

Gösta TH Liljeqvist12*, Michael Staff3, Michele Puech3, Hans Blom4 and Siranda Torvaldsen2

Author Affiliations

1 NSW Public Health Officer Training Program, New South Wales Department of Health, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

2 School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

3 Northern Sydney Central Coast Area Health Service, Hornsby, New South Wales, Australia

4 Vale Medical Centre, Brookvale, New South Wales, Australia

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Public Health 2011, 11:435  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-435

Published: 6 June 2011



Influenza intelligence in New South Wales (NSW), Australia is derived mainly from emergency department (ED) presentations and hospital and intensive care admissions, which represent only a portion of influenza-like illness (ILI) in the population. A substantial amount of the remaining data lies hidden in general practice (GP) records. Previous attempts in Australia to gather ILI data from GPs have given them extra work. We explored the possibility of applying automated data extraction from GP records in sentinel surveillance in an Australian setting.

The two research questions asked in designing the study were: Can syndromic ILI data be extracted automatically from routine GP data? How do ILI trends in sentinel general practice compare with ILI trends in EDs?


We adapted a software program already capable of automated data extraction to identify records of patients with ILI in routine electronic GP records in two of the most commonly used commercial programs. This tool was applied in sentinel sites to gather retrospective data for May-October 2007-2009 and in real-time for the same interval in 2010. The data were compared with that provided by the Public Health Real-time Emergency Department Surveillance System (PHREDSS) and with ED data for the same periods.


The GP surveillance tool identified seasonal trends in ILI both retrospectively and in near real-time. The curve of seasonal ILI was more responsive and less volatile than that of PHREDSS on a local area level. The number of weekly ILI presentations ranged from 8 to 128 at GP sites and from 0 to 18 in EDs in non-pandemic years.


Automated data extraction from routine GP records offers a means to gather data without introducing any additional work for the practitioner. Adding this method to current surveillance programs will enhance their ability to monitor ILI and to detect early warning signals of new ILI events.