COVID-19: the next normal—strengthening the system for 2021 and beyond
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for quality timely data to drive better health and welfare decision-making.
In 2020, restrictions were put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 and contain its impact in the community. As part of these restrictions, many health services were suspended or required to operate in new or different ways. While this may have limited people’s access to and use of these services, in some cases, new or additional services were made available to Australians through changes to health service delivery models, policies, and programs.
Restrictions also affected other areas of people’s lives, including their employment, income, living arrangements, and ability to spend time with friends and family. For some people, these changes may have meant they needed extra support to help manage their health, including mental health, and wellbeing.
As part of our response ot COVID-19, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare is looking to identify the inter-connected relationships and characterise the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on the health and welfare of Australians.
Here are some ways in which the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare is preparing to ensure that the data and statistics associated with COVID-19 will be measured and analysed.
The AIHW will be focusing its efforts on turning the lessons of COVID-19 into insightful information. Particularly looking at how the dynamics within already sensitive sectors such as those in the disability, mental health, aged care sectors, and vulnerable population groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island persons and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds will be impacted.
Supporting data sharing
To support the response to the pandemic, the AIHW continues to assist governments share health system data, particularly to ensure the capacity of our hospital system is not exceeded and that we have up to date monitoring of the impact on the mental health system. This has resulted in unprecedented data sharing arrangements and systems that allow data to be collected from across the health system, including from every public hospital in the country, every day, and for this data to be made instantly available to all stakeholders via online tools. In addition in 2020 the AIHW was compiling data each week on the use of mental health services and on the number of suspected deaths by suicide. These data were regularly provided to National Cabinet. In 2021 data collation moved to a fortnightly cycle.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, one area that has seen tremendous growth is digitisation. Meaning everything from telehealth to the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to improve analysis and processing. How all the reporting on this increase feeds into a long-term impact on Australians will not be known until the data for several more years can be analysed.
The pandemic has highlighted some weaknesses in existing data systems and provides a strong impetus for data improvement. With consistent data based on clear metadata, it is possible to make comparisons over time and across areas. When different data definitions are used comparisons become harder.
For example, international comparisons of simple things like deaths associated with COVID-19 have been vexed because of the different scope of data used across countries. Furthermore, there are major data gaps in several areas including aged care and much can be achieved by linking various datasets while maintaining privacy. The AIHW is currently working with data collection agencies in the health and welfare sector to explore how this can be achieved.
New data and reports
The AIHW is working to develop a national linked COVID-19 Register and research data set that will provide an asset for use in COVID-19 research into the medium and longer-term health effects of COVID-19, including effects on health system use. This will include research to inform health service planning, monitoring and evaluation, and health policy development at the national and state and territory level.
AIHW published reports on Cancer screening and COVID-19 in Australia in October and December 2020. These reports presented data for Australia’s three national cancer screening programs (BreastScreen Australia, the National Cervical Screening Program, and the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program), covering the first nine months of the pandemic in Australia. The long-term effects of delayed screening during the COVID-19 pandemic will not be known for some time so the AIHW will continue monitoring the effects of this changing situation into the future.
New AIHW reports and data on COVID-19 are expected to be released in the first half of 2021. They will bring together key data on COVID-19 over the year 2020, including the direct and indirect effects of the disease, and burden of disease estimates for COVID-19.
The releases with information about COVID-19 are listed on our COVID-19 page, along with links to other AIHW resources which may be useful when researching issues related to the coronavirus pandemic.