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Original research
Analysis of multimorbidity networks associated with different factors in Northeast China: a cross-sectional analysis
  1. Jianxing Yu,
  2. Yingying Li,
  3. Zhou Zheng,
  4. Huanhuan Jia,
  5. Peng Cao,
  6. Yuzhen Qiangba,
  7. Xihe Yu
  1. Social Medicine and Health Service Management, School of Public Health, Jilin University, Changchun, China
  1. Correspondence to Dr Xihe Yu; xhyu{at}jlu.edu.cn

Abstract

Objectives This study aimed to identify and study the associations and co-occurrence of multimorbidity, and assessed the associations of diseases with sex, age and hospitalisation duration.

Design Cross-sectional.

Setting 15 general hospitals in Jilin Province, China.

Participants A total of 431 295 inpatients were enrolled through a cross-sectional study in Jilin Province, China.

Primary outcome measures The complex relationships of multimorbidity were presented as weighted networks.

Results The distributions of the numbers of diseases differed significantly by sex, age and hospitalisation duration (p<0.001). Cerebrovascular diseases (CD), hypertensive diseases (HyD), ischaemic heart diseases (IHD) and other forms of heart disease (OFHD) showed the highest weights in the multimorbidity networks. The connections between different sexes or hospitalisation duration and diseases were similar, while those between different age groups and diseases were different.

Conclusions CD, HyD, IHD and OFHD were the central points of disease clusters and directly or indirectly related to other diseases or factors. Thus, effective interventions for these diseases should be adopted. Furthermore, different intervention strategies should be developed according to multimorbidity patterns in different age groups.

  • public health
  • qualitative research
  • health informatics
  • hypertension

Data availability statement

Data may be obtained from a third party and are not publicly available. These data were from a survey conducted by the School of Public Health, Jilin University in Jilin Province in 2018. Because of relevant regulations, the data cannot be shared.

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Strengths and limitations of this study

  • This study visually demonstrated the differences in multimorbidity according to sex, age group and hospitalisation duration.

  • Adjusting the analysis of multimorbidity patterns to the individual level rather than disease level could identify and study the associations and co-occurrence of multimorbidity.

  • The model can be applied to assess the patterns of multimorbidity associated with different factors, and provide meaningful information for clinicians.

  • The results were based on a cross-sectional study in Jilin Province, China, which might limit the generalisability of the results.

Introduction

The term multimorbidity broadly refers to the presence of two or more health conditions (diseases) in a single individual.1–4 With the continuing increase in life expectancy, multimorbidity has become a worldwide public health issue as it increases with age.5 Additionally, multimorbidity is associated with increased adverse health outcomes such as poor quality of life, disability, hospitalisation, mortality and the concomitant use of healthcare resources and expenditure.6–9 Furthermore, multimorbidity is also costly for both individuals and the healthcare system, with healthcare utilisation and costs increasing with each additional condition,10–12 particularly in China, the world’s most populous country.13 14 Therefore, identifying the associations and co-occurrence of multimorbidity is an essential public health issue that requires urgent attention.

Most of the published literature on multimorbidity patterns focuses on disease level rather than individual level.1 10 15 Adjusting the analysis of multimorbidity patterns to the individual level rather than disease level could identify and study the associations and co-occurrence of multimorbidity. Studying and treating diseases in isolation may not only lead to inefficiencies and duplication in the case of multimorbid patients but may also have serious implications if treatment for one disease contradicts that for another.1 A multidimensional approach is required to understand the patterns of multimorbidity and recognise the associations between conditions within these patterns.

Furthermore, Aguado et al16 pointed out that multimorbidity is a complex phenomenon that can be assessed using network analysis. Moreover, research on multiple disease networks has attracted increasing attention in recent years. In their analysis of phenotyping networks, Hidalgo et al17 reported that patients with highly connected diseases tended to die sooner. Glicksberg et al18 observed race-specific disease networks based on a large-scale analysis of electronic medical records. In their multimorbidity network analyses, Kalgotra et al identified specific differences in disease diagnosis by sex and proposed questions for behavioural, clinical, biological and policy research; these researchers also identified specific differences in diagnoses among different population groups.19 20

However, these studies, while powerful and groundbreaking, did not adequately address the question of the associations of age, hospitalisation duration and diseases in their multimorbidity networks due to the limitations of their database. Thus, the present study aimed to identify and study the associations and co-occurrence of multimorbidity and provide meaningful information for clinicians. Another objective was to better understand the associations between common health conditions (diseases) to advance research into the mechanisms underpinning these common health conditions (diseases) associations. Finally, this study also assessed the associations of diseases with sex, age and hospitalisation duration.

Methods

Study population

This study analysed data obtained from the hospital information systems or electronic medical record systems of 15 general hospitals in Jilin Province, China. The research objects were inpatients between 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2018, and the final study comprised 516 399 inpatients. For each included inpatient, the extracted variables were sex, age, hospitalisation duration, disease names and International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th Revision (ICD-10) classifications. To ensure the effectiveness and representativeness of the constructed disease network, the original medical data set was preprocessed to eliminate invalid patient records, including the following: (1) inpatients with some conditions or diseases such as injury, poisoning, certain infectious or parasitic diseases and congenital malformations; and (2) diseases occurring in fewer than 1000 inpatients (as the disease network was constructed without considering rare diseases). Finally, this study included 72 diseases to explore multimorbidity in 431 295 inpatients.

Data collection

A multistage stratified random sampling method was used to obtain the sample data. First, through a comprehensive assessment of the geographical location, economic level and health service status of each city, Jilin, Changchun, Baicheng, Yanbian and Tonghua were finally included in the sample area, three general hospitals from each of these locations were then random selected. Finally, based on the administrative division, 15 general hospitals were selected as the monitoring institutions for this study. The inpatient data comprised continuous medical records, including indicators such as sex, age, hospitalisation duration, ICD-10 classification and disease name. To improve the data accuracy, we recruited and trained 20 people with proficiency in Excel software and medical backgrounds to form a professional team to check the accuracy of the basic information. Thirty general practitioners with more than 3 years of work experience confirmed that the names of the diseases matched the ICD-10 classifications.

Statistical analysis

The categorical variables in this study were expressed as counts and percentages. Rao-Scott-χ2 tests were used to compare the distributions of the numbers of diseases and the complex relationships of multimorbidity were presented as weighted networks. The nodes represented diseases/factors, with the sizes of the nodes indicating their weight relative to all other diseases/factors. The edges represented the co-occurrence of a multimorbidity pair in the network, with the weight of the edge proportional to the prevalence of each pair. For inpatients with more than two diseases, the count of each multimorbidity pair would have an increment of 1 (eg, for an inpatient with ischaemic heart diseases (IHD), hypertensive disease (HyD) and cerebrovascular disease (CD), the multimorbidity pairs of IHD&HyD, IHD&CD and HyD&CD would increment by 1). The degree was defined as the number of nodes to which a focus node was connected, and was used to measure the node’s participation in the network. The sparsity of the network was evaluated using the network density and average degree. The network density of an undirected graph with M edges and N nodes was defined as 2M/N(N−1), which described the proportion of potential connections (N(N−1)/2) in a network with actual connections (M). The larger the network density (or average degree), the denser the network.21–23 The networks were analysed using the R package igraph. All statistical analyses were performed using R V.3.6.1 (R Core Team (2014). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. URL http://www.R-project.org/). Statistical significance was set at p<0.05.

Patient and public involvement

Patients were not involved in the study based on anonymised data.

Results

We analysed data from 431 295 inpatients in Jilin Province, China. As shown in table 1, the distributions of the numbers of diseases differed significantly by sex, age and hospitalisation duration (p<0.001). Additionally, the number of male inpatients was higher than that of female inpatients and the proportion of male inpatients with 2 or ≥3 diseases was higher than that of female inpatients. Further, the proportion of inpatients with one disease decreased with age, while the proportion of inpatients with ≥3 diseases increased. Moreover, the results of hospitalisation duration were similar to those for the age groups and the proportion of inpatients with ≥3 diseases increased with increasing hospitalisation duration.

Table 1

Descriptive characteristics of the inpatients according to the number of diseases

Table 2 shows the abbreviations and proportions of the 72 diseases. Among the 72 diseases, the maximum and minimum percentages were 19.34 and 0.30, respectively. Additionally, IHD, HyD, CD, other forms of heart disease (OFHD) and malignant neoplasms (MNE) had frequencies exceeding 50 000.

Table 2

Abbreviations and proportions of the 72 diseases

Figure 1 shows a visual representation of the network according to sex, age and hospitalisation duration. Both sexes had notably more connections in the 45–64 years and 65– years age groups; however, female inpatients had more connections for the 18–44 years age group compared with that in male inpatients. Additionally, the 45–64 years and 65– years age groups had notably more connections with the hospitalisation duration, with the 65– years age group showing more connections to 12– days hospitalisation duration. Finally, the connections between different sexes and hospitalisation duration were similar.

Figure 1

Network of sex, age and hospitalisation duration.

Figure 2 shows the multimorbidity network for 72 diseases. CD, HyD, IHD and OFHD had notably high weights (illustrated by the sizes of the nodes). In addition, the ‘IHD-OFHD-HyD’ triangle and ‘CD-HyD’ exhibited notably high connections in the multimorbidity networks (illustrated by the thicknesses of the lines connected to these nodes). Although MNE had notably high weights, no high connections to other diseases were observed compared with those for other high-weight diseases.

Figure 2

Multimorbidity networks for 72 diseases.

As illustrated in figure 3, the ‘IHD-OFHD-Male’, ‘IHD-OFHD-Female’, ‘CD-HyD-Male’ and ‘CD-HyD-Female’ triangles showed notably high connections in the networks. Moreover, CD and diabetes mellitus (DME) had more notable connections with male inpatients compared with those in female inpatients.

Figure 3

Multimorbidity networks with sex for 72 diseases.

Figure 4 shows the connections between different age groups and the 72 diseases. The older age group not only had more inpatients (illustrated by the sizes of the nodes) but also had more connections with other diseases (illustrated by the thicknesses of the lines connected to these nodes). Compared with other diseases, acute upper respiratory infections (AURI), influenza and pneumonia (IP) and OFHD had notably more connections with the <18 years age group. However, the 18–44 years age group had notably more connections to complications of labour and delivery (CLD), delivery (Del), maternal care related to the fetus and amniotic cavity and possible delivery problems (MCFAP), other maternal disorders predominantly related to pregnancy (OMDP) and metabolic disorders (MeD), and four of which were related to pregnancy and delivery. CD, HyD, IHD, OFHD and DME had notably more connections in the 45–64 years age group, and mainly cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. In the 65– years age group, the ‘CD-HyD-65–’ and ‘IHD-OFHD-65–’ triangles showed the most network connections.

Figure 4

Multimorbidity networks with age for 72 diseases.

Figure 5 shows the networks for the different groups of hospitalisation duration and diseases. The weights were similar for the different groups of hospitalisation duration (illustrated by the node sizes). Moreover, CD, IHD, HyD, OFHD had more connections with the different groups of hospitalisation duration (illustrated by the thicknesses of the lines connected to these nodes).

Figure 5

Multimorbidity networks with hospitalisation duration for 72 diseases.

Discussion

A major strength of this study was that it used a large-scale, real-world clinical database of 431 295 inpatients in Jilin province, China. Additionally, the patterns of multimorbidity were based on the entire eligible sample. Another strength was that individual level rather than disease level was considered as the unit of analysis.15 24 This approach permits a more rational and realistic monitoring of participants than cohort studies to analyse multimorbidity patterns over time.25 In the syndemics theory proposed by Singer,26 the effects of the presence of multiple diseases on a patient’s health differ from their individual independent efffects. In other words, the risk of multimorbidity is greater than the sum of single diseases. Furthermore, networks offer a more global picture because they include not only direct connections but also indirect associations, which provides more accurate information about multimorbidity. However, most current studies have compared different racial groups,17 18 and few have evaluated the associations of disease patterns with sex, age and hospitalisation duration. The present study not only identified and studied the associations and co-occurrence of multimorbidity and provided meaningful information for clinicians but also assessed the associations of diseases patterns with sex, age and hospitalisation duration.

Comparing the results of the present study to those by Hidalgo et al17 on human phenotype using a dynamic network approach can be used to verify the reliability of the results of this study. Hidalgo et al found that many diseases were associated with HyD or IHD, consistent with the findings of the present study. Hidalgo et al17 further demonstrated higher comorbidity for DME and HyD in black men compared with white men, and this study also confirmed more notable connections for DME in male inpatients compared with female inpatients.

Previous studies have shown that sex significantly affects multimorbidity.19 27 28 In the present study, the proportion of multimorbidity was much higher in male inpatients than in female inpatients, a finding consistent with those of other studies.29–31 Further, the disease associations in networks of both sexes revealed different disease associations according to sex. In the present study, ‘CD-HyD’ and ‘IHD-OFHD’ showed more connections with male inpatients and female inpatients, respectively. The connection between CD and HyD in both sexes has been well documented in the literature.32 Additionally, CD and HyD share common risk factors such as obesity,33 34 smoking and drinking.35 Furthermore, CD and DME showed more connections with male inpatients than female inpatients, also consistent with the findings of other studies.17 36 37

Multimorbidity is often attributed to the ageing process, with a prevalence of approximately 62% in individuals aged 65–74 years and 81.5% in those older than 85 years of age.38 A previous study showed an increasing tendency in the prevalence of multimorbidity in older adults.39 40 The present study observed similar results, with more patients in the 65–74 years age group (table 1 and illustrated by the sizes of the nodes in figure 4). This may be due to higher body immunity and function in younger people compared with those in older people, thus, the proportion of diseases was lowest in the 0–17 years age group.

Furthermore, the main diseases differed across age groups; for instance, AURI and IP showed more connections in the <18 years age group. Other studies also found similar results.41–43 Thus, more attention should be paid to respiratory system diseases in patients <18 years. Furthermore, CLD, Del, MCFAP, OMDP and MeD showed notably more connections in the 18–44 years age group. This finding is likely related to the age at which women have children; and other studies have shown that women often develop metabolic disorders during pregnancy.44 Thus, more attention should be given to female health. Moreover, the health challenges faced by the 45–64 years age group are more complex than those faced by other age groups because body immunity and function decline with age. Additionally, the population in this age group is under substantial mental stress, leading to feelings of exhaustion and illness. Therefore, multimorbidity studies individuals aged 45–64 years cannot be overlooked, particularly those on CD, HyD, IHD, OFHD and DME. Although this age group had a denser multimorbidity network, the ‘CD-HyD-65–’ and ‘IHD-OFHD-65–’ triangles showed more connections than those of other combinations. These findings suggest that different intervention strategies should be developed according to multimorbidity patterns in different age groups.

Finally, the results of this study showed that the stronger the disease connection to other diseases, the stronger the connection to the longer duration of hospitalisation. For example, HyD showed more marked connections with other diseases and a stronger connection with the group of patients with longer hospitalisation duration. Other studies have reported similar results. Specogna et al45 observed that patients with spontaneous intracerebral haemorrhage arriving at the hospital with HyD were 31% more likely to stay in the hospital beyond 1 week per visit compared with non-hypertensive patients.

This study had some limitations. First, the study participants were inpatients in Jilin Province, which could not represent the patterns of multimorbidity in other places. Second, this study investigated only sex, age and hospitalisation duration; however, other factors not considered in this study might have impacted multimorbidity. Finally, diseases occurring in fewer than 1000 inpatients were excluded, which might have caused bias.

Conclusion

The results of this study visually demonstrated the differences in multimorbidity according to sex, age group and hospitalisation duration. Adjusting the analysis of multimorbidity patterns to the individual level revealed that IHD, HyD, CD and OFHD were the central points of disease clusters and were directly or indirectly related to other diseases and factors. Thus, accurate identification and effective intervention for these diseases should be adopted in the healthcare system. Furthermore, the government and relevant departments should develop different intervention strategies according to multimorbidity patterns in different age groups. Finally, the multimorbidity patterns were more consistent with clinical practice, allowing the effective management of patients with multimorbidity.

Data availability statement

Data may be obtained from a third party and are not publicly available. These data were from a survey conducted by the School of Public Health, Jilin University in Jilin Province in 2018. Because of relevant regulations, the data cannot be shared.

Ethics statements

Patient consent for publication

Ethics approval

This study was approved by the ethics committee of the School of Public Health, Jilin University (Reference Number: 2018-07-06).

Acknowledgments

We express our gratitude to the participants and colleagues who were involved in the study. We are also appreciative for the support of our funders

References

Footnotes

  • Contributors JY and XY had the original idea for the study and carried out the design. JY and XY provided valuable insight regarding the methodological approach and organization of the manuscript. JY, YL and ZZ carried out the statistical analysis and reviewed the consistency of data included in the paper. JY and YL drafted the manuscript. JY, HJ, PC and YQ revised the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

  • Funding This study is funding by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in China Project of Humanities and Social Sciences (Project No. 18YJAZH118).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.