Building an Ontology for Identity Resolution in Healthcare and Public Health

Jeffrey Duncan, Karen Eilbeck, Scott P Narus, Stephen Clyde, Sidney Thornton, Catherine Staes


Integration of disparate information from electronic health records, clinical data warehouses, birth certificate registries and other public health information systems offers great potential for clinical care, public health practice, and research. Such integration, however, depends on correctly matching patient-specific records using demographic identifiers.  Without standards for these identifiers, record linkage is complicated by issues of structural and semantic heterogeneity.

Objectives: Our objectives were to develop and validate an ontology to: 1) identify components of identity and events subsequent to birth that result in creation, change, or sharing of identity information; 2) develop an ontology to facilitate data integration from multiple healthcare and public health sources; and 3) validate the ontology’s ability to model identity-changing events over time.

Methods: We interviewed domain experts in area hospitals and public health programs and developed process models describing the creation and transmission of identity information among various organizations for activities subsequent to a birth event. We searched for existing relevant ontologies. We validated the content of our ontology with simulated identity information conforming to scenarios identified in our process models.

Results:  We chose the Simple Event Model (SEM) to describe events in early childhood and integrated the Clinical Element Model (CEM) for demographic information.  We demonstrated the ability of the combined SEM-CEM ontology to model identity events over time.

Conclusion: The use of an ontology can overcome issues of semantic and syntactic heterogeneity to facilitate record linkage.

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Online Journal of Public Health Informatics * ISSN 1947-2579 *