Window on Indigenous health limited by gaps in data

7 November 2017

There has been major progress in the reduction of smoking rates, cardiovascular deaths and vaccine coverage among Indigenous people, but these achievements get overshadowed by the bad news stories.

Major gaps in data are impeding the ability of Indigenous communities to gain a clear picture of their health and access to services, an Indigenous health expert from The Australian National University (ANU) has found.

Dr Ray Lovett from the ANU Research School of Population Health said studies and media reports often portrayed Indigenous health as only a problem and overemphasised negative findings, rather than highlighting progress.

"There has been major progress in the reduction of smoking rates, cardiovascular deaths and vaccine coverage among Indigenous people, but these achievements get overshadowed by the bad news stories," Dr Lovett said.

Dr Lovett is part of an international research collaboration from Australia, New Zealand and Canada that has proposed a new way to ensure Indigenous people maintain control of their health data.

The research and proposed governance processes for use of routinely collected Indigenous health data are published in The Lancet.   

"The landscape of health data is changing with increasing access to diverse sources, including health system encounters, health payment claims and disease registries," Dr Lovett said.

"The value of these routinely collected data is enhanced if they can be linked securely and anonymously at the level of the individual to create reliable health records."

In Australia, the Federal Government has responsibility for primary health care through Medicare and Indigenous identity can be registered when enrolling for coverage.

"The problem is that enrolment in Medicare is incomplete, as is Indigenous self-identification," Dr Lovett said.

He said Medicare data was not linked with other administrative and registry data at the national level to investigate the health and care of Indigenous people.

No national agreements on the governance of Indigenous health data exist in Australia, New Zealand or Canada.

ANU conducted the research with the Laurentian University and Institute for Clinical Evaluation Sciences and The Chiefs of Ontario in Canada, The University of Waikato in New Zealand and Bond University in Queensland.