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Using Big Data to Improve Healthcare in Western Australia

The increased level of security is because the linkage techniques operate on encrypted data, which means there is no requirement for the release of information that could potentially identify an individual.

Under a new Memorandum of Understanding, the Curtin Centre for Data Linkage will work with the Department of Health to link GP, hospital, pathology and non-health data records with analytical tools to support the individual-centred research and service evaluation necessary to improve health outcomes at both a state and national level.

Professor Gavin Pereira, from the Curtin Health Research and Data Analytics Hub at Curtin University, said the new privacy-preserving record linkage methods had the potential to provide new individual-level data for research discovery and to inform government services, policies and programmes. It will now be possible to study a person’s interactions with the health system and overlay big data analytics with the ultimate aim of new research discoveries.

The linkage of big data has traditionally relied on matching personally identifiable information. Although this improves the ability to investigate individual health outcomes and provide personalised health care, there remain concerns pertaining to privacy as the matching requires the exchange of identifiable information.

The professor added that the COVID-19 pandemic increased awareness that health cannot be solely attributable to clinical care. Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing. It is not just about genetics, diet and exercise. “Each life activity is a transaction that generates new data, which brings both new opportunities to gain a more holistic understanding of health as well as challenges to overcome.”

The Curtin Centre for Data Linkage has developed a means to connect data across general practices, hospitals, registries, and government departments and yet also preserve privacy. The Department of Health’s Director of Data and Information Systems said WA had a long history of data linkage activities for medical research and health service planning. A collaborative effort by the department, Curtin University, The University of WA and Telethon Kids Institute led to the establishment of the internationally recognised WA Data Linkage System (WADLS).

Professor Pereira noted that the WADLS platform is housed and managed by the Department of Health. The infrastructure has contributed to several improvements to health policy and care in WA and has also supported hundreds of research projects.

The government recognises and supports the significant value of linked data for purposes that extend well beyond the historic usage in medical research. This has been reflected in significant investments in data skills and functions, enabling legislation, and partnerships with universities and industry.

Supporting the use of data linkage services in WA has led to better decision-making and high-quality healthcare throughout the state, which has been showcased through the State’s COVID-19 pandemic response.

Further, the collaboration provided an opportunity for the Department of Health to effectively leverage upon data skills and expertise available within Curtin University to support digital innovation and business transformation throughout the WA health system, using customer focus processes and emerging technologies in direct alignment with strategic priorities of the Digital Strategy for the Western Australian Government 2021-2025 and Sustainable Health Review 2019.

Using privacy-preserving record linkage models, in collaboration with Curtin University’s Centre for Data Linkage, provides a safe and effective approach to integrating data from different sources, consistent with the Australian Privacy Principles and the Department of Health’s strong commitment to ensuring information is appropriately protected from misuse or inappropriate disclosure.

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