Opinion: 3 February 2017.

In this article, the Sax Institute’s Deputy CEO Robert Wells argues for increasing data sharing and access in the health sector, as a test case for how the government can share data more widely across its departments.

Sax Institute Deputy CEO Robert Wells

Sax Institute Deputy CEO Robert Wells

We are swimming, some would say drowning, in data. It has even been speculated that data will one day become more valuable than money.

But while the amount of data being created and stored grows exponentially, the rules surrounding its sharing and use are set by a hodgepodge of regulations and agencies.

While privacy and security concerns must remain paramount, too much information that could be used to improve our wellbeing is not accessible to the researchers or agencies that could make the best use of it.

Productivity Commission inquiry

That’s why the Productivity Commission (PC) was asked to undertake an inquiry into the benefits and costs of improving access to public and private sector data.

Towards the end of last year it handed down its draft report and invited additional submissions ahead of delivering a final report to the government by March 21.

The draft report suggests the PC intends to recommend sweeping changes that will see Australia go from back of the pack to top of the class when it comes to the way valuable, largely de-identified data is shared and who has access to it.

The report strikes a balance between access and the protection of private information and would provide the public much more transparency about what data is held on them and opportunities to have errors corrected.

Balancing risk

One of the key issues with allowing widespread access to public data is minimising the risk of accidental or deliberate re-identification of personal information.

Linking service data such as Medicare transactions with other data would provide much richer insights into the workings of society, but it must be done securely.

Fortunately, we have a world leading national data linkage and secure access facility in the health sector — the Population Health Research Network.

However, in any project proposing reform on this scale, there will be numerous challenges.

The health sector could lead the way

That’s why we propose the PC considers using the health sector as a test case.

For a start, the sector represents 10 per cent of GDP and is important to every Australian.

The size and complexity of the health sector, involving national, state and territory governments, the private sector and the not-for-profit sector, means many impediments to data sharing and access will need to be overcome to make the system operate effectively.

There is a strong research and analytical capacity across the sector, particularly in the use of linked data and assessing value for money in health investments, so the sector has the expertise and knowledge required to function as an early adopter.

There are also established structures that have made considerable progress in bringing together data from different areas. The current review of the Medicare Benefits Schedule is a good example of how data can ensure Medicare is made more efficient and ensure that services that are potentially dangerous or of low value are not supported.

For all that, the health sector could equally benefit from forging ahead with this reform agenda.

Better data access could improve health

There is evidence of a gap between the access to and use of health data as practised in Australia and the approach taken by other developed countries.

This gap affects not just researchers investigating health data, but the government’s ability to manage the health system efficiently and effectively.

Using the health sector as a testing ground would give the government an opportunity to refine and perfect the process before launching across all areas of public life.

If it can be done here it can be done across the rest of government.

The potential social, economic and societal impacts of a move to fundamentally and positively change how we access and share data demands that we get this right the first time.

This article was originally published in The Australian. Read the original article here.

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