Opening up oral health datasets for wider access by researchers and the public could bring many benefits, say researchers from the International Research Collaborative – Oral Health and Equity at The University of Western Australia.
Their article below lays down a challenge to Federal and State Governments, as well as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
We need more eyes on our dental health data
Marc Tennant, Kate Dyson and Estie Kruger write:
Many Western democracies are moving to increase the public accessibility of information contained within government data sources. This move is opening raw data sets collected by State and quasi-State organisations to the public with appropriate privacy protection.
Government data, collected with taxpayer funding, is viewed as a civic resource to which public access is encouraged. A diverse range of datasets have become available in open format including weather, transport, ordinance, crime and policing, court sentencing, education and health data.
Providing impetus for this approach is recognition of the significant opportunities for community benefit attainable by opening non-aggregated data to wider public interpretation and analysis, whether by academics, the not-for-profit sector, commercial enterprise or the general public.
This approach enables novel and innovative developments to flourish, a simple example of which can be seen in the rapid proliferation of transport apps that occurred following open access to London Transport data (or Sydney, Perth or Melbourne). In the health arena, the public release of drug cost data in the USA led to the development of apps assisting patients and doctors to reduce drug costs for patients and the community.
Another important impetus is heightened contemporary community expectations regarding the transparency and accountability of public institutions that serve them.
The UK is a leader in open data. In health, wide-ranging data sets are available including national clinical audits, GP prescribing, Accident and Emergency performance data.
Australia’s open data processes are in their infancy. Among Australia’s leaders in the open data are the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Bureau of Meteorology and recently, SA Health, which gives open access to real time hospital A&E data.
Our national agency for health and welfare statistics and information, AIHW, is yet to open its data sets to public access. This massive national health resource, compiled over many decades and with many millions of taxpayer dollars, therefore remains under utilised and limited in independent analysis.
As a result, governments, health service organisations, care providers and patients and all Australians are not in a position to receive the benefits that may emanate from more eyes looking at the this very important national data resource.
The implications of this for Australian dentistry are significant since some of Australia’s most substantial oral health datasets are held by the Australian Research Centre for Population Oral Health (ARCPOH) on behalf of AIHW.
These datasets include data from the Child Dental Health Surveys and the National Survey of Adult Oral Health as well as dental workforce data.
Much of the substantial dental policy decisions made in Australia over the last two decades (eg dental workforce), as well as much discussion in the scientific literature and the wider professional press, has rested on these datasets, which have essentially only been open to a single analytical team.
Australia is in a critical period of rapidly changing dental landscape with new policy initiatives and greater government dental expenditure, changing the course of both private and public health dentistry.
In this climate, it would clearly advantageous to have as many “eyes”, both expert and lay, able to review all available data to help ensure decision-making and advocacy has a collectively determined evidence-based direction.
Is it time for Australians to call for open access to our national oral health datasets in keeping with the wider principles of open access for the benefits it offers our community?
The application of open access to public health data held by State and Federal government agencies is one for governments to make.
Most oral health data, current and past, is held by the State dental services and AIHW, and in reality it will be these organisations that are called on to bring open data policy to the dental arena.
• Professor Marc Tennant, Dr Kate Dyson and Associate Professor Estie Kruger are from the International Research Collaborative – Oral Health and Equity, Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia.
• Declaration: The authors are public dental health researchers so open data in this field will increase research activity for the team as well as many others across Australia. More eyes better outcomes.
Note from Croakey: On related topics, this 2013 article by Professor John Mathews canvassed the need for greater understanding of the potential public health benefits of data linkage.