The benefits of data linkage

The data linkage work carried out by the PHRN is crucial to the ongoing improvement of health and health care across Australia.

The ability for approved researchers to link health and related data across every Australian state and territory, to compare national trends and to evaluate the effectiveness of health policy for government and key policy decision makers, will ensure that health policy, funding and campaigns are better targeted and more effective.

Research using data linkage, in Australia and overseas, has already proven powerful in not only influencing health policy and health promotion but also in saving lives. This research ensures the ability to react quickly to adverse health trends, identify and monitor infectious disease outbreaks, detect health service problems and improve clinical practice.

Data linkage provides information on whole populations that generates a more complete picture of the health of the community than is possible using other research methods. It is also a very cost-effective research tool.  Once the linkage infrastructure is in place, the cost of accessing linkable data becomes more affordable.

Prior to the development of data linkage systems, most research using linked data involved the use of identified data. In other words, researchers received both the personal information (eg. name, address, date of birth) as well as the related content information (eg. diagnosis and treatment).

The data linkage process and the use of coded linkage keys to better protect a person's privacy has meant a significant change in the way health and health related research is carried out. Identified data is now only rarely released to health researchers as it is not needed for many projects. Data linkage has also supported an expansion in population-based health research in an environment where personal details are strongly protected.

Some examples of where data linkage has been used to great effect across a range of health and health related areas include:

  • monitoring the impact and success of child immunisation programs;
  • monitoring the success of health promotion campaigns;
  • identifying the impact of alcohol and illict drug use on newborn babies;
  • linking workers compensation data with police accident data to determine trends in work related driving accidents;
  • monitoring pneumonia hospitalisation rates amongst indigenous children to assess the effectiveness of health campaigns and vaccine programs;
  • examining the relationship between calcium supplements and vascular disease in elderly women; and
  • studying the relationship of vehicle fatalities and seatbelt use.

Read more about successful data linkage projects and case studies.