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OBJECTIVE: To use a population-level, public-hospital approach to compare the prevalence and cost of musculoskeletal diseases (MSD) with other clinical specialties. METHODS: A healthcare utilization survey of 4 million individual records over 4 years, from all major public hospitals in the state of Victoria (estimated population 4.8 million residents in 2000/01) from 1997/98 to 2000/01. Main outcome measures were inpatient episodes of care, bed-days, and outpatient clinic encounters. MSD was defined as the combination of orthopedics and rheumatology. RESULTS: After obstetrics, MSD was the most frequent outpatient service, with orthopedics accounting for 9.9% of all visits in 2000/01. The proportion of MSD outpatient encounters (on average 11.6% of the total) was constant over the study period. Among 26 medical specialties, MSD had the sixth highest number of inpatient episodes (6.2% in 2000/01), following renal dialysis (14.6%), general surgery (8.2%), obstetrics (7.6%), gastroenterology (7.1%), and general medicine (6.7%). MSD was the fifth highest consumer of bed-days, occupying on average 7.7% of all beds per annum in the period 1997/98 to 2000/01, behind psychiatry (10.1%), respiratory medicine (8.5%), rehabilitation (8.3%), and general medicine (7.8%). MSD was the third most-costly discipline in 2000/01, with total costs of over A dollars 169 million (9.7% of total inpatient costs that year), behind respiratory medicine (11.6%) and general surgery (11.5%). CONCLUSION: Compared to other diseases, MSD consumes a substantial proportion of healthcare resources in Victorian public hospitals. These data have important implications for allocation of healthcare resources, clinical care pathways, and prevention strategies.