Identifying injection drug use and estimating population size of people who inject drugs using healthcare administrative datasets



Large linked healthcare administrative datasets could be used to monitor programs providing prevention and treatment services to people who inject drugs (PWID). However, diagnostic codes in administrative datasets do not differentiate non-injection from injection drug use (IDU). We validated algorithms based on diagnostic codes and prescription records representing IDU in administrative datasets against interview-based IDU data.


The British Columbia Hepatitis Testers Cohort (BC-HTC) includes ∼1.7 million individuals tested for HCV/HIV or reported HBV/HCV/HIV/tuberculosis cases in BC from 1990 to 2015, linked to administrative datasets including physician visit, hospitalization and prescription drug records. IDU, assessed through interviews as part of enhanced surveillance at the time of HIV or HCV/HBV diagnosis from a subset of cases included in the BC-HTC (n = 6559), was used as the gold standard. ICD-9/ICD-10 codes for IDU and injecting-related infections (IRI) were grouped with records of opioid substitution therapy (OST) into multiple IDU algorithms in administrative datasets. We assessed the performance of IDU algorithms through calculation of sensitivity, specificity, positive predictive, and negative predictive values.


Sensitivity was highest (90–94%), and specificity was lowest (42–73%) for algorithms based either on IDU or IRI and drug misuse codes. Algorithms requiring both drug misuse and IRI had lower sensitivity (57–60%) and higher specificity (90–92%). An optimal sensitivity and specificity combination was found with two medical visits or a single hospitalization for injectable drugs with (83%/82%) and without OST (78%/83%), respectively. Based on algorithms that included two medical visits, a single hospitalization or OST records, there were 41,358 (1.2% of 11–65 years individuals in BC) recent PWID in BC based on health encounters during 3- year period (2013–2015).


Algorithms for identifying PWID using diagnostic codes in linked administrative data could be used for tracking the progress of programing aimed at PWID. With population-based datasets, this tool can be used to inform much needed estimates of PWID population size.

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