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Background: Data analysis is used to identify signals suggestive of variation in treatment choice or clinical outcome. Analyses to date have generally focused on a hypothesis-driven approach. Objective: This study aimed to develop a hypothesis-free approach to identify unusual prescribing behavior in primary care data. We aimed to apply this methodology to a national data set in a cross-sectional study to identify chemicals with significant variation in use across Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) for further clinical review, thereby demonstrating proof of concept for prioritization approaches. Methods: Here we report a new data-driven approach to identify unusual prescribing behaviour in primary care data. This approach first applies a set of filtering steps to identify chemicals with prescribing rate distributions likely to contain outliers, then applies two ranking approaches to identify the most extreme outliers amongst those candidates. This methodology has been applied to three months of national prescribing data (June-August 2017). Results: Our methodology provides rankings for all chemicals by administrative region. We provide illustrative results for 2 antipsychotic drugs of particular clinical interest: promazine hydrochloride and pericyazine, which rank highly by outlier metrics. Specifically, our method identifies that, while promazine hydrochloride and pericyazine are barely used by most clinicians (with national prescribing rates of 11.1 and 6.2 per 1000 antipsychotic prescriptions, respectively), they make up a substantial proportion of antipsychotic prescribing in 2 small geographic regions in England during the study period (with maximum regional prescribing rates of 298.7 and 241.1 per 1000 antipsychotic prescriptions, respectively). Conclusions: Our hypothesis-free approach is able to identify candidates for audit and review in clinical practice. To illustrate this, we provide 2 examples of 2 very unusual antipsychotics used disproportionately in 2 small geographic areas of England.

Original publication




Journal article


JMIR Medical Informatics

Publication Date