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Wellington research on childhood respiratory illnesses and primary care

Press Release – University of Otago
A study using ‘big data’ has found that childhood respiratory illnesses, especially during the first two years of life, have a big impact on New Zealand primary care general practice (GP) workloads.

The large cohort study of 36 primary care practices from the greater Wellington region looked at data from children presenting to their GP with respiratory illness, describing variation over six years.

The research led by Professor Tony Dowell from the University of Otago, Wellington showed that respiratory conditions constituted 46 per cent of all child general practitioner consultations with a remarkably stable year-on-year pattern of seasonal peaks.

“For the first time, using a new way of accessing the free text in GP notes, we have been able to investigate and measure impact on primary care practices of these childhood illnesses,” says Professor Dowell.

“The information will help towards more effective planning of ways of delivering health services leading to better health outcomes.

“The findings and methods have relevance to many countries, and the use of primary care ‘big data’ in this way can be applied to other health conditions,” he says.

The team reviewed the records from 77,582 children enrolled to estimate the presentation of childhood respiratory illness and service use. They analysed the data over six years from January 2008 to December 2013.

The researchers used a natural language processing software inference algorithm to analyse the large amount of data.

The research found that upper respiratory tract infection was the most common respiratory category accounting for 21.0 per cent of all childhood consultations, followed by ear infections (12.2 per cent), wheeze-related illness (9.7 per cent), throat infection (7.4 per cent) and lower respiratory tract infection (4.4 per cent).

Almost 70 per cent of children presented to their general practitioner with at least one respiratory condition in their first year of life. This dropped to approximately 25 per cent for children aged 10–17.

“This cohort represents 268,919 person-years of data and over 650,000 unique consultations,” Professor Dowell says.

The study appears in the British Medical Journal.

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