CEO's report

Mr Rob Heferen

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the AIHW has remained focused on our overarching goal of providing stronger evidence to support better decisions and improved health and wellbeing for all Australians.

During 2021–22, our employees have continued to deliver high-quality data products and analysis and expanded our product offerings. The AIHW has balanced the need for our stakeholders – particularly government policy advisors and decision-makers – to have access to real-time and near-real-time data, while also providing more long-term and detailed reports and other data products.

The AIHW is contributing to the national response to COVID-19 and other health and welfare issues. The value of our work has been demonstrated by the fact we were commissioned to undertake a range of additional activities over the past year.

Our success in meeting increased demand for data and analysis in 2021–22 was made possible by the professionalism of our people, support and oversight of the board, and our strong relationships with other Australian, state and territory government agencies, and other health and welfare organisations.

Following the change of government at the election in May 2022, we look forward to working constructively with the Hon Mark Butler MP, Minister for Health and Aged Care, who is the AIHW’s new portfolio minister.

COVID-19 response

The widespread effects of COVID-19 on Australian society mean that almost all AIHW collections and reports containing data from 2020 onwards are relevant to the pandemic. However, some specific COVID-19-related work undertaken in 2021–22 deserves mention.

Work began on the development of a COVID-19 linked data set. This work was initiated due to emerging evidence of the medium- and long-term effects of COVID-19. It will provide information and ongoing monitoring of the health outcomes and health system needs of people who have had a COVID-19 diagnosis. The development of the platform was supported through a grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Medical Research Future Fund.

Australia’s welfare 2021 took an in-depth look at the wellbeing of Australians during the first months of the pandemic, including tracking the effects of the pandemic on social cohesion, employment, the social security system, housing, education and population and migration.

In September 2021, the AIHW released The first year of COVID-19 in Australia: direct and indirect health effects. This report included information on case numbers, deaths and burden of disease as well as the impact on other diseases, health services, changes in health behaviours and social determinants up until June 2021. Notably, the report compared COVID-19 case and death rates with 4 other countries with similar life expectancy and health systems. Australia had lower crude case and death rates than Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom but higher crude case and death rates than New Zealand.

We have been continually producing data about the mental wellbeing of Australians during the pandemic and the use of mental health services. For example, levels of psychological distress appeared to increase during the first months of the pandemic, particularly for adults aged 18–45. By April 2021, the average level of psychological distress had returned to pre-pandemic levels but continued to be higher for young people. Australia’s health 2022, released in July 2022, also had a strong focus on the pandemic.

Other major events in 2021–22

The AIHW launched some significant products, including:

  • The fourth annual report on suicide among permanent, reserve and ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) was released on 29 September 2022. This was the first report in the series to include information on people who had served in the ADF since 1985 (the previous reports only included information on those who had served since 2001).
  • The Indigenous Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Clearinghouse was launched on 14 July 2021. It includes information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s wellbeing, mental health and suicide prevention.
  • A world-first monitoring system including data on ambulance attendances was released on our suicide and self-harm monitoring website on 20 July 2021.
  • The first phase of the redevelopment of the AIHW’s METEOR platform was completed in mid-2022. METEOR is the repository for Australian metadata standards for statistics and information in areas such as health, housing and homelessness, aged care, Indigenous Australians, disability, children, families and youth.

New and expanded work

The AIHW received budget funding to begin several new significant projects in 2021–22.

In the area of mental health, the AIHW is developing a single collection for people receiving mental health services in the community and has assumed a greater role in the development of the National Mental Health Service Planning Framework, through the establishment of a secure subsite on the AIHW website.

The AIHW will also develop and maintain a mental health enduring linked data asset, to include services funded by Australian and state and territory governments and expand the scope of analytical work and products presented in the Mental health services in Australia online report.

The AIHW’s family, domestic and sexual violence work is being expanded to enhance reporting and evidence, including the development of a new AIHW subsite. The AIHW was also funded to deliver a prototype family, domestic and sexual violence integrated data system.

The AIHW is also working on new aged care data improvement activities, including the development of a national minimum data set and aged care data asset.

Looking forward

In accordance with the AIHW strategic directions 2022–2026, we will continue to work with our stakeholders to identify and fill significant gaps in health and welfare data. As the volume of data and reports the AIHW produces has been increasing in recent years, we will also continue to work with our partners – particularly those in government – to ensure that relevant decision-makers are aware of important AIHW data and analysis.

The AIHW’s workforce has grown rapidly in recent years to meet the demands for our health and welfare data analysis. Even with this growth, the 2021 Australian Public Service (APS) Employee Census results showed the AIHW was in the top rankings for engagement and wellbeing scales out of 101 agencies.

We are confident that this growth has been sustainable, and that the workforce has the required skills.

As in other workplaces, the pandemic has led to more flexible working conditions at the AIHW, including an increase in the number of employees seeking to working from home for at least 1 or 2 days per week on an ongoing basis. In early 2021, the AIHW’s flexible working policy was updated to make it easy for employees to spend part of their week working from home. Following staff consultation, refinements to this policy are expected to come into effect in 2022–23.

Finally, as I reflect on my first full year as Chief Executive Officer, I am proud to be part of an organisation that is making a positive contribution to the health and wellbeing of all Australians.