Maria Pikoula, Jennifer Kathleen Quint, Francis Nissen, Harry Hemingway, Liam Smeeth and Spiros Denaxas

BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making (2019) 19:86

doi: 10.1186/s12911-019-0805-0



COPD is a highly heterogeneous disease composed of different phenotypes with different aetiological and prognostic profiles and current classification systems do not fully capture this heterogeneity. In this study we sought to discover, describe and validate COPD subtypes using cluster analysis on data derived from electronic health records.


We applied two unsupervised learning algorithms (k-means and hierarchical clustering) in 30,961 current and former smokers diagnosed with COPD, using linked national structured electronic health records in England available through the CALIBER resource. We used 15 clinical features, including risk factors and comorbidities and performed dimensionality reduction using multiple correspondence analysis. We compared the association between cluster membership and COPD exacerbations and respiratory and cardiovascular death with 10,736 deaths recorded over 146,466 person-years of follow-up. We also implemented and tested a process to assign unseen patients into clusters using a decision tree classifier.


We identified and characterized five COPD patient clusters with distinct patient characteristics with respect to demographics, comorbidities, risk of death and exacerbations. The four subgroups were associated with 1) anxiety/depression; 2) severe airflow obstruction and frailty; 3) cardiovascular disease and diabetes and 4) obesity/atopy. A fifth cluster was associated with low prevalence of most comorbid conditions.


COPD patients can be sub-classified into groups with differing risk factors, comorbidities, and prognosis, based on data included in their primary care records. The identified clusters confirm findings of previous clustering studies and draw attention to anxiety and depression as important drivers of the disease in young, female patients.