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World-first census will give unprecedented insight into our healthcare

Data is the key.


It’s no secret that hospitals are slow to update their systems and practices.

While incredible artificial intelligence (AI) systems are now available that can provide smarter, more personalised information about patients, actually implementing these technologies across an entire facility is no small feat. 

Many hospitals in Australia are still in the process of fully digitising their records, so how can we prove that things are actually better once they do? 

That's where Dr Kerryn Butler-Henderson, a health information manager at the University of Tasmania, comes in. She’s dedicated her career to keeping track of the new digital systems and data being collected across healthcare facilities in Australia, and figuring out if they’re truly meeting the needs of our doctors, nurses, and patients.

We need to know about this workforce, and how to identify what its future configuration should be. We need to know how to respond when more and more AI really starts to change things

“Right now in hospitals, it is difficult to plan for how many doctors and nurses we really need, let alone how many informatics officers and data analysts. We need to be smarter about that workforce.” 

Dr Butler-Henderson is leading an initiative to create the first ever national census of Australia’s health information workforce, to inform the planning and forecasting of its technological, educational, and training needs. 

And when the census is released in May 2018, it’ll be the first of its kind anywhere in the world. 

“The entire workforce hasn’t been looked at before,” said Dr Butler-Henderson. “In Canada, they did a similar census, but they didn’t ask questions with the depth that we’re asking. And it’s never been done with all disciplines of the health information workforce.” 

The most important thing to nail down when you’re generating a brand new census is, of course, the set of questions. So, over the past 12 months, Dr Butler-Henderson and her team have been working with an expert panel to devise a 20-minute set that will still be relevant many years into the future. 

This ‘minimum dataset’ ensures that every time the census is distributed, it can provide a snapshot of that time - no matter how many years into the future. 

The team is also working with focus groups to develop a more timely set of questions to accompany the minimum dataset. The first round of the census will be able to capture the state of things as they are right now, as hospitals navigate the very early stages of digitisation. 

While Australia is the focus, Butler-Henderson says the census could also be distributed elsewhere in the world. She is currently seeking international partners to take it global. 

“We’ve been speaking with a lot of potential partners in the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia. We’re eager for this census to be done in other countries,” she said. 

One of the important questions Dr Butler-Henderson hopes the census will answer is how many people should we be employing in the health information workforce, based on the qualifications, functions, competencies, and levels of experience of the existing workforce? 

With the unprecedented levels of insight that are likely to emerge from her census, we should be far better equipped to fill other major knowledge gaps that are holding back our healthcare facilities from engaging the right workforce. 

“We don’t have the data right now to say what the impact of this workforce is on safe care,” said Dr  Butler-Henderson. 

So it’s about answering all these questions that right now we don’t know, but we should know. That’s really important.