Christopher Yau is a co-investigator in the BIRM-CAM project that is led by Professors Tom Marshall (University of Birmingham) and Sylvia Richardson (MRC Biostatistics Unit, University of Cambridge).
Multimorbidity is when people suffer from more than one long-term illness. It is increasingly common as people live longer. It is important because individual illnesses have knock-on effects on others, it is more complex managing multiple than single illnesses, and multimorbid patients are heavy users of medications and health services.
To understand multimorbidity we need to know which illnesses tend to occur together and which illness combinations most affect health. To adapt health services we need to know which types of people develop multimorbidity: their age, sex, ethnicity, socio-economic status and whether they tend to live in the same households. To learn how to prevent it we need to identify lifestyle factors (physical activity, diet, smoking, alcohol) linked to multimorbidity and the measurements (laboratory test results, weight, blood pressure) that might be early signs.
Electronic Health Records
Electronic health records are a good source of information on multimorbidity because they include information on the same patient over many years. They include information on illnesses, medications, hospital admissions; measurements (laboratory tests, weight, blood pressure) and lifestyle (smoking, alcohol). Previous research has studied multimorbidity using a variety of statistical methods. It finds some illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease tend to occur together. But different statistical methods often find different groups of illnesses. We need a single, consistent approach to this type of analysis to ensure we are researching the same groups of illnesses. Previous research generally has not made best use of all the available information. For example, patients are considered either to have or not have diabetes but research did not make use of laboratory measurements (such as blood glucose) identifying some people as likely to develop diabetes. Previous research grouped illnesses according to how commonly they occur together, without giving any special significance to combinations of illnesses linked to risk of death or hospital admission. Clearly such combinations of illness are of more importance. There are more advanced analysis methods which can address these and other shortcomings.
The first part of our research will develop methods of data analysis. We will review research on different statistical methods for grouping illnesses together. We will hold a workshop involving leading UK researchers in the field to try to agree on the best approach to this type of analysis. Informed by this we will analyse two large databases of electronic health records, each including several million patients. In each database we will identify the groups of illnesses that co-occur and check our findings in the other database. This is considered good practice in analysis. At the end of this step we will produce software to analyse and find groups of illnesses in electronic health records and make this freely available for other researchers to use.
The next part of our research will use additional information from two large surveys. Both surveys include details not always available in health records e.g. occupation, diet, lifestyle and measures of frailty. One includes 500,000 people the other has information on the same people over a period of 14 years. We will describe the consequences for patients of different combinations of illnesses: their levels of frailty because it is linked to need for social care; development of further illnesses; medications, use of health services and death. We will work with patient advisors to help guide analysis of patients journeys through health services. We will investigate possible causes of multimorbidity including people’s social circumstances, the environment, lifestyle (smoking, alcohol, diet and exercise) and laboratory test results that might help indicate causes. This step will point to the areas of environment and lifestyle which should be investigated further as possible causes.