CEO's report

Mr Rob Heferen

My appointment as Chief Executive Officer commenced on 1 July 2021. During the reporting year, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) was under the leadership of my predecessor, Mr Barry Sandison.

In his 5-year term, Mr Sandison oversaw significant reforms and positioned the AIHW for the future. His contributions transformed the AIHW, expanded its suite of products and services, and achieved significant improvements in the way data are presented, making it more accessible and easier to understand.

On behalf of all the staff, I would like to thank the Chair of the AIHW Board and its members for their guidance and governance. I look forward to the opportunity of working with them. I am privileged to work with our talented, expert and highly committed staff who, as champions of open and accessible data and information, make the AIHW a national asset. I thank them all for their dedication, drive and efforts during the past year.

Sustaining momentum during a pandemic

In the midst of the global pandemic, 2020–21 was a year of managing risks, embracing challenges and grabbing opportunities for the AIHW.

The AIHW continued contributing to the Australian Government’s response to COVID-19 in practical and valuable ways. Numerous staff were seconded to assist in the National Incident Room, the Department of Health and other agencies. We added value through our work as leaders in health and welfare data, and provided rapid, timely reports on relevant and crucial COVID-19-related data, including hospital capacity, mental health, regional insights and suicide. With a view to ensuring that our products remain relevant, we continued to assess ways in which they include COVID-19-related information.

We enhanced our flexible working arrangements with a focus on providing a supportive and healthy environment to ensure the wellbeing of our highly valued staff. Results of the APS Employee Census 2020, to which 84% of our staff responded, revealed largely positive feedback on the AIHW’s culture of collaboration and commitment to excellence. Rankings against the engagement and wellbeing criteria were notably high.

Maintaining relationships and trust

We maintained collaborative formal and informal relationships with our stakeholders and strategic partners. We pursued mutual aims to build nationally consistent data, encouraged participation and feedback, and continued work focused on building community trust. Evidence from our 2020 stakeholder research, which explored levels of awareness and perceptions of the AIHW and our products and services, was affirming. We know that the AIHW’s online products, data and analyses continue to be valued by our stakeholders. Our approach to engagement was rated highly, as was our capacity for listening to stakeholders and the contemporary way in which data critical to them are presented and shared. Rising demand for our services brought further recognition of the level of excellence associated with the work of the AIHW. 

In this year characterised by great uncertainty and increased psychological distress in the community, access to a wide range of prompt, readily available data enabling holistic depictions of health and welfare issues became increasingly important. The AIHW expanded its role and value to its stakeholders through augmented investigation, collection and use of innovative data sources. We continued our shift from the release of static,one-off reports towards creating regularly updated online content on particular topics. Cognisant of the risks inherent in the continually expanding data we release, we applied rigorous controls on data security, access and storage to protect our data in the face of increasing cybersecurity threats and to maintain the trust of our data suppliers.

Our website continues to be critical in establishing the AIHW’s identity and fostering relationships, especially in times of limits on social gatherings such as meetings and conferences. Extensive work on revamping the website and a targeted social media campaign preceded the virtual launch of our flagship publication, Australia’s heath 2020.

Highlights of 2020–21

Launched by the AIHW Board Chair on 23 July 2020, Australia’s health 2020 is our 17th biennial report on the health of Australians. The report was the AIHW’s most downloaded publication of the year, showing its continuing value to the Australian community. A mix of short statistical updates and longer discussions exploring selected topical issues, it also serves as a ‘report card’ on the health of Australians by looking at how we are faring as a nation.

Other key achievements of the year included:

  • A website released on 29 September 2020 as part of the nationwide effort to address suicide and self-harm in Australia. Our National Suicide and Self-harm Monitoring System aims to provide a better understanding of suicide and self-harm in Australia by: explaining the nature and extent of suicidal and self-harming behaviours; improving the range of data available to help identify trends and emerging areas of concern; and highlighting those at increased risk.
  • Our report on the 2019–20 bushfires released on 25 November 2020 examines a range of health data sources to assess the short-term health impacts of the unprecedented fires that swept across Australia. The report includes data on emergency department visits, prescription and purchase of asthma medicines, mental health service use and visits to general practitioners. Results show clear associations between increased bushfire activity and poor air quality and people seeking assistance for their health.
  • On 17 December 2020, we released 6 reports and data updates that reviewed the impacts of COVID-19 on the Australian health system and the health of Australians. The combined release attracted high levels of media attention.
  • The 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) report was released on 16 July 2020. The survey collected information on alcohol and tobacco consumption, and illicit drug use, from almost 23,000 people aged 14 and over across Australia. For the first time since the NDSHS was initiated in 1998, the 2019 survey provides perspectives on emerging initiatives, such as the availability of pill and other drug testing for potential drug users.
  • Australia’s youth was released on 25 June 2021. It brings together a wide range of data on the wellbeing of adolescents and young adults (aged 12–24) at a critical period in their lives. The report provides an overview of the impact of COVID-19 on young people.

Looking to the future

Meeting the challenges of ongoing change in recent years has demonstrated our agility and resilience. Our suite of products and services continues to grow, with consequent benefits to the community across many social policy areas. Growth in size and funding of the AIHW comes with its own challenges and risks. Building capacity to manage further growth will be vital. As well as achieving the right balance of APS and contract staff to deliver on key projects, the AIHW needs to attract and retain sufficient numbers of suitably qualified and skilled people to meet our substantial workload.

We are maintaining the focus on improving the timeliness of our products. We are also examining our data supply and analysis chains to speed up the receipt of data and its availability to users. Using emerging technology is important for our core analysis and to enhance our products and services. Investing in our information and communication technology infrastructure and its security is crucial to keep pace with our expanding work to provide access to our data in secure environments. These are key to maintaining stakeholder and community trust.