Australia prides itself on having a rich farming culture, but our understanding of the health of people living on the land is something of a fallow field.
Studying farmers’ health has long proved challenging for a variety of reasons. For researchers, particularly those in non-urban areas, these challenges have included restricted access to large linked datasets to help them unlock important population health questions.
For researcher Julie Depczynski from The University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety, distance is no longer a barrier to conducting linked data research. Being able to use the Sax Institute’s Secure Unified Research Environment (SURE) has meant she can conduct research into cancer in farming families that just would not have been possible for her before.
SURE is a purpose-built remote-access data research laboratory for analysing routinely collected data, that allows researchers to log in remotely and securely analyse data from sources such as hospitals, general practice and cancer registries.
“Our Centre is based in Moree in north western NSW, seven hours from Sydney,” she says. “So there’s no way we could have travelled back and forth to Sydney to access secure data. SURE overcomes those geographical boundaries for rural-based researchers. I wouldn’t have been able to do this study if SURE wasn’t available.
Investigating cancer in farmers
Ms Depczynski is investigating cancer in those who live on farms. Her work illustrates the value in making it easier for rural researchers to work in their own communities, where they can apply local insights and experience to their work.
She is also drawing on the 45 and Up Study, which has identified a valuable cohort of 20,000 men and women aged 45 and over, living on farms in NSW.
By linking that cohort to a variety of other datasets, such as Medicare data, mortality and cancer registry data, she has been able to compare cancer rates and screening in those who live on farms with the rural non-farming population, and people living in urban areas. She is also able to look at stages of presentation, deaths and their correlation with socio-economic and behavioural risk factors such as alcohol intake, smoking, exercise and diet.
The study findings could have important implications for future cancer prevention and screening programs for Australia’s rural population, she says.
“It is really important that researchers in regional and rural areas are able to conduct high-quality work and both SURE and 45 and Up have been critically important in helping me to do that.”
SURE was established with funding from the Australian Government National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) as part of the Population Health Research Network (PHRN).The PHRN is a collaboration that was set up in 2009 to further develop Australia’s data linkage capabilities.
Find out more
- Read more about SURE datasets: New avenues opened for large-scale hospital research
- Read more news from the 45 and Up Study