Linked data saving lives against COVID-19

3D illustration of animated people being linked with data portraying social interactions

Connecting Australia’s health data is vital to Australia’s response to COVID-19, and the NRCIS-funded Population Health Research Network gives us the infrastructure and privacy protection to make it happen.

Connecting Australia’s nation-wide health data is vital to fighting COVID-19, and the Population Health Research Network (PHRN) gives us the infrastructure and privacy protection to make it happen.

In February 2020—a month before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic—Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Dr Jeanette Young recognised the role data would play in Australia’s response to the coronavirus. She called an emergency meeting to start linking information on returned travellers to their health and other government records.

This was the start of a nation-wide escalation of data linkage systems required to support every aspect of Australia’s COVID-19 response.

As doctors and nurses treated Australia’s first COVID-19 patients, data scientists worked behind the scenes, quickly linking health information to support front-line workers.

Linked data:

  • identifies the best locations for pop-up testing clinics
  • shares information on testing levels
  • tracks case locations and home isolations
  • assists research about emerging diseases
  • helps hospitals prepare for the number of patients likely to be admitted or require ICU treatment. 

Centre for Victorian Data Linkage Manager Sharon Williams said that the data helped track what was happening to people who tested positive.

“For example, we could see whether they went to an emergency department or were admitted to hospital”, Sharon said.

This data also tracks emergency department presentations and hospital admissions in the months after patients recover from the virus. This helps researchers understand the long-term health implications of COVID-19, and the potential impacts of responses such as lockdowns delaying other health treatments.

PHRN Chief Executive Dr Merran Smith said, “Australia is a world leader [in data linkage]… and I think that has put us in a good place in responding to COVID.”

Linked data is also used to identify vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or single parents, to help agencies conduct wellbeing checks and provide appropriate support services.

PHRN receives support by the governments National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) program. PHRN links a diverse range of data about people in Australia from state, territory, and federal governments in highly secure environments, and in ways that minimise privacy risks.

This article was published as part of National Science Week 2021.

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Correct at time of publication.