Mr Barry Sandison
It has been an incredibly challenging year in 2019–20. Like much of Australia, work at the AIHW was impacted firstly by the national bushfire crisis and then the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these challenges, we continued to deliver our products and services while supporting Australia’s response to the pandemic.
Data are playing an increasingly powerful role in informing policy and research in health and welfare in Australia. We saw growth in demand for data linkage and customised data services.
Due to the Australian Public Service cap on staffing levels, we have continued to rely on employing contract staff to meet our business requirements. By the end of June 2020, 32.3% of our active staff were contractors.
We embraced a flexible approach in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We provided staffing support to the Department of Health as requested, shifted our resources internally, put some work on hold to take on new work and increased demand for some services.
A number of our highly qualified epidemiologists and statistical staff were deployed to the National Incident Room, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and a few state and territory health departments to support policy responses to the pandemic.
In compliance with decisions of the National Cabinet and advice from the Australian Public Service Commission, we introduced social distancing measures to support our staff maintain a safe and healthy workplace and we enabled the majority of staff to work from home. Our capacity to support remote working arrangements increased from 40 to 240 staff. Results of a survey showed that 95% of staff felt the measures kept them safe and 84% believed the changes enabled them to work productively.
To ensure that policymakers had access to credible and comparable data to inform the COVID-19 response in key areas, we developed rapid and flexible approaches to data collection and analysis. For example, the AIHW received hospital capacity and activity data from all state and territory governments and shared this across all jurisdictions via an interactive online dashboard. We also assisted the Department of Health to monitor crucial mental health-related data from a range of sources to report directly to the Prime Minister.
2019–20 Australian bushfires
Unprecedented fires burned across south-eastern Australia over the 2019–20 bushfire season and caused devastation of the natural and built environment. Our staff were directly impacted by threats to, or loss of, their property or that of their families and by the effects of dense smoke in Canberra and Sydney. We put measures in place to minimise smoke in buildings to maintain healthy air quality.
Though it will take many years for all of the health and other impacts to become apparent, we began a project to examine the immediate effects of air quality on health in different locations and points in time using Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme data, emergency department attendances in New South Wales, over-the-counter Ventolin purchases and visits to primary health-care services. The report will include interactive content and summarise findings from other available information related to bushfires and health.
Australia’s welfare 2019 was launched on 11 September 2019 by the Minister for Social Services, Senator the Hon. Anne Ruston.
We presented Australia’s health 2020 to the Minister for Health, the Hon. Greg Hunt, MP, on 30 June and released it on 23 July. We delayed its release to include a key article on COVID-19.
Highlights for 2019–20
Other key achievements included:
- establishing the Housing Data Dashboard—a one-stop-shop for housing and homelessness data, bringing together over 20 national data sets, and around 7.5 million data points into a single interactive dashboard environment
- commencing the new national suicide information system and working with jurisdictions to establish registers to improve the timeliness of data
- partnering with the Attorney-General’s Department to provide data analysis for the Independent Review by the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention
- launching the Australian Health Performance Framework page on our website which provides a high-level overview of the health of Australians and our health system
- providing data and advice on the new Closing the Gap targets
- supporting the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety and publishing linked data on interfaces between the aged care and health systems
- commencing the pilot phase of the National Disability Data Asset
- delivering the Secure Research Access Environment to facilitate health and welfare research by external entities and researchers
- conducting a survey which showed that the majority of our stakeholders are satisfied with our services.
We also released, for the first time:
- Chronic pain in Australia which explored national data on people in Australia with chronic pain, as well as its impact, treatment and management
- Endometriosis in Australia: prevalence and hospitalisations which included national estimates on prevalence in collaboration with the University of Queensland
- Stillbirths and neonatal deaths 2015 and 2016 which showed changes in the rate of perinatal mortality across the gestational period
- People with disability in Australia—a compendium web report on disability.
We also faced a few challenges:
- The contract with an external provider to replace METeOR was terminated and plans are now underway to develop it in-house in 2020–21 (see page 31).
- After a few small errors were discovered in released data, we commissioned a systemic review of our product development process (see page 39). The Quality Management Framework is being redeveloped and a new plan to improve the handling of errors has been introduced.
The last 4 years
Since I started at the AIHW in 2016, I am proud of the tremendous progress made by the Institute in entrenching its position as the leader in health and welfare statistics in Australia. This has been reflected in the growth in our total revenue from $57.8 million in 2016–17 to $86.7 million in 2019–20,
Following an independent review of the AIHW conducted in 2015, we worked with the Department of Health to transform many of our processes and enhance engagement with stakeholders. These reforms have enabled us to improve our timeliness and responsiveness, and facilitate efficient growth in the AIHW’s suite of products and services.
We invested in our capability to link multiple, complex data sets. For example, we developed the National Integrated Health Services Information Analysis Asset (NIHSI AA) linking hospitals data with the Medicare Benefits Schedule, Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Repatriation Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, residential aged care and the National Death Index data. Containing 12 billion recorded events, the NIHSI AA demonstrates the value of linking data safely and securely to allow greater analysis of the patient journey through the health system. Work to develop the National Disability Data Asset is now well underway which, when completed, will provide a better understanding of how people with a disability are supported through services, payments and programs.
I would like to thank all members of the AIHW Board I have worked with during this period for their strategic guidance of the AIHW.
Most of all, I am privileged to lead an organisation of highly qualified, talented and motivated people who have a strong culture of collaboration and commitment to excellence in delivering products and services on a wide range of health and welfare topics.
Outlook for 2020–21
COVID-19 reinforced the need for timely reporting. Our key priority for 2020–21 will be to review our own work processes and continue to work with our data suppliers to develop ways to improve our capability to present data more quickly.
We will continue improving our flexible approach to managing our work commitments, meeting new demands and keeping our staff safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some staff will also be relocated into a new building at 9 Thynne Street, Bruce, next door to our current main building. This relocation will consolidate our longer term accommodation needs in Canberra.
The forthcoming release of 'A burning issue: short-term health impacts of the 2019–20 Australian bushfires', co-funded by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, will improve our understanding of the effects of bushfires on health. A web page on Environmental health will also be established on the AIHW’s website which will enable the provision of new data in 2021.
We will build on our strong and established relationships with the Australian Government and state and territory agencies to improve access to data. All governments recognise the importance of high-quality data to improve the evidence base for decision making and the AIHW is well placed as a trusted strategic partner to facilitate improved data sharing between agencies.
To achieve our goals in 2020–21, we will continue to work with all our partners in health and community services across Australia to maintain our role as a leading national agency for information and statistics.