New centre to unlock the secrets of cheaper, quality healthcare

An Australian-first health research centre at UNSW promises to realise the potential of big data to reduce the costs of healthcare while simultaneously improving the prevention and management of many diseases.
UNSW’s new Centre for Big Data in Health will put Australia at the forefront of global innovation in medicine and healthcare by linking, scrutinising and ‘mining’ the vast banks of data held by modern healthcare systems. Big data refers to the wealth of details held in millions of personal health records – from biological data, to clinical records and information about environmental risks and lifestyle – that are de-identified to protect individual’s privacy. 

The Centre, to open later this year, will be led by Professor Louisa Jorm, an internationally recognised epidemiologist and public health expert, who comes to UNSW from roles as Foundation Professor of Population Health at the University of Western Sydney and Senior Advisor at the Sax Institute. She will maintain close links with these institutions as well as with her many national and international collaborators. For healthcare experts, this can be checked out! 

Professor Jorm has led the development of new systems to utilise health records while protecting individuals’ anonymity and was instrumental in establishing a secure, high-powered Australian-built computing environment to keep data safe. She was a key member of the team that established the ground-breaking 45 and Up Study of healthy ageing at the Sax Institute, which is currently following more than 250,000 residents of NSW, the largest such cohort in the southern hemisphere. 

By cross referencing complex webs of information, big data research can unlock new insights to save lives, improve quality of life and reduce healthcare costs. For example, by linking demographic and lifestyle information to health records, researchers in the 45 and Up Study have been able to identify who is most likely to stop taking prescribed blood pressure medication. This information can be used to identify groups that require follow up, and to reduce costs by preventing avoidable medical visits and hospitalisations. 

A 2013 McKinsey study of the US health system estimated savings of $300-450 billion could be identified using big data, especially through the prevention of now common, costly diseases like type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease. 

“We have so much valuable health information in data banks that can now be cross referenced to reveal the best and safest ways to deal with major diseases and health issues and to uncover risks and causes of disease we are not yet aware of,” Professor Jorm said. 

“UNSW’s medical precinct is an ideal base because of the considerable potential to collaborate with its world class research centres ranging from cancer research to HIV/AIDs, public health, mental illness, substance use and the development of new drugs, therapies and biomedical devices.” 

Dean of UNSW Medicine, Professor Peter Smith, said the Centre for Big Data in Health fills a critical gap in Australia’s international research profile as the nation’s first centre dedicated to using large-scale and linked health data that spans the full spectrum of health and medical research. 

Australia has invested in building rich collections of population-based health and medical data but needs the skills and specialist expertise the Centre will foster to translate that data into better disease prevention and patient care, and more effective health care spending. 

The centre will initially focus on the existing strengths of Professor Jorm and her team – maternal and child health, chronic disease and multi-morbidity, Aboriginal health, substance use, drug safety, communicable disease and injury – but is expected to grow rapidly and expand its agenda. 

OPINION: Read an op-ed by Professors Louisa Jorm and Peter Smith.


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