Powerful insights from linked data

Data linkage brings together information about people, places and events from different data collections based on common features. Linked data provides a more comprehensive picture of a subject, and is one of the most powerful ways of adding value to the data already held by many organisations. Data linkage projects are already providing significant new insights that are improving the health care of Australians.

The AIHW has a strong record in data linkage—or data integration—both in its own work and in facilitating the work of other researchers. The AIHW has been accredited as one of three Integration Authorities for the integration of Commonwealth data-meaning that the Institute has met stringent criteria covering project governance, capability, data management, and the protection of privacy and confidentiality.

'Linked data can unlock valuable information by connecting data about individual's health conditions with the treatments they receive and the longer-term outcomes that result for them,' said Mr Geoff Neideck, Head of the Institute's Data Strategies and Information Technology Group.

'The insights we can gain through data linkage mean there are significant real world benefits for individuals and society.'

Examples of current data linkage projects are research investigating the effectiveness and safety of childhood vaccines; the health and social outcomes of injecting drug users; the health outcomes for people living near the Hazelwood mine fire; and the care of people with acute coronary syndrome.

The Institute is working closely with state data linkage units to bring together Commonwealth and state health and community services data for particular projects. Examples include:

  • Better Cardiac Care Projects (NSW and Queensland), which are examining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's access to appropriate and equitable preventive and treatment services for cardiac disease
  • the Cancer Pathways Project (Victoria) that seeks to identify the best pathways of care for people with colorectal or breast cancer
  • a project on fragility fractures (SA) to identify the risk of serious bone fractures in older Australians who have already had a relatively minor fracture.

Mr Neideck explained how in one study, the AIHW undertook the data linkage for a large project led by University of Melbourne researchers examining the long-term effects of low dose radiation from computed tomography (CT).

'Results showed that CT scans in children and young people have a small but highly significant effect on their risk of developing cancer, although this varies with the site of scan and child's age,' Mr Neideck said.

This study was published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and was the most cited article from that journal in 2014.

'Partly due to this work, the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care has recently released new guidelines for CT scans in children,' Mr Neideck said.

The future of data linkage at the AIHW looks to be increasingly busy and exciting.

'New arrangements for Medicare data mean that the processes for gaining approvals and obtaining linked data are much more efficient and timely, which will open up new data linkage possibilities,' Mr Neideck said.

See New opportunities: MBS and PBS data now at AIHW for more information.

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