Linking databases on perinatal health: a review of the literature and current practices in Europe.
BACKGROUND: International comparisons of perinatal health indicators are complicated by the heterogeneity of data sources on pregnancy, maternal and neonatal outcomes. Record linkage can extend the range of data items available and thus can improve the validity and quality of routine data. We sought to assess the extent to which data are linked routinely for perinatal health research and reporting. METHODS: We conducted a systematic review of the literature by searching PubMed for perinatal health studies from 2001 to 2011 based on linkage of routine data (data collected continuously at various time intervals). We also surveyed European health monitoring professionals about use of linkage for national perinatal health surveillance. RESULTS: 516 studies fit our inclusion criteria. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, the US and the UK contributed 76% of the publications; a further 29 countries contributed at least one publication. Most studies linked vital statistics, hospital records, medical birth registries and cohort data. Other sources were specific registers for: cancer (70), congenital anomalies (56), ART (19), census (19), health professionals (37), insurance (22) prescription (31), and level of education (18). Eighteen of 29 countries (62%) reported linking data for routine perinatal health monitoring. CONCLUSION: Research using linkage is concentrated in a few countries and is not widely practiced in Europe. Broader adoption of data linkage could yield substantial gains for perinatal health research and surveillance.