Big problems, big solution – how Australia is leading a healthcare revolution

Image - Big problems, big solution – how Australia is leading a healthcare revolution

Rapid growth and escalating demand have seen this future-facing research centre fast-tracked onto the world stage.

 Byline: By Ken Eastwood

 When Louisa Jorm founded the Centre for Big Data Research in Health (CBDRH) at UNSW three years ago, she had a pretty small crew.

 “There were three of us on day one,” she says. “Now we have 40 research staff and around 20 research students.”

 Merging big data analysis with the healthcare sector, this groundbreaking research centre is unique – and not just in Australia, but worldwide.

 “I don’t know of another anywhere in the world that has that focus,” says Jorm. “We are the go-to place for big data health research in Australia, and increasingly in Asia.”

 With experts in public health, clinical care, and economics sitting alongside biostatisticians, computer scientists, and data managers, the Centre is able to analyse vast pools of information to form new insights into what makes our bodies susceptible to disease - and who’s most at risk.

 Already, their discoveries are leading to improved treatments and new diagnosis techniques across a range of diseases.

 “We’ve done a lot of work on preventing hospitalisation,” says Jorm.

 “Some of our research has led to better management of people who have had a heart attack and are discharged from hospital, just by bringing the data together across the sectors.”

 One recent client was the telephone helpline service, Health Direct.

 “They might advise you to see a GP or wait, or to go to hospital straight away,” Jorm explains.

 “It’s a particularly important service in a place like Australia where there are so many people living in rural areas, and they might be a long way from hospital.”

 Until the Centre analysed records of more than a million people who had used the service, operators had no way of knowing if people actually followed their advice, or what the end result was.

 “The information helped Health Direct understand how an individual’s circumstances affected their ability to follow the advice of the helpline, and then they could tailor their services and advice to such people,” says Jorm.

 A leader on the world stage

 Once the CBDRH was established in 2014, Associate Professor Georgina Chambers knew she had to transplant UNSW’s National Perinatal Epidemiology and Statistics Unit there.

 “It became obvious to me that a statistics unit such as ours is better placed in a centre for excellence in informatics,” says Chambers.

 “In this digital era, health services research teams have to be able to span both clinical and data science domains. That’s something the CBDRH does really well.”

 Recent research from the CBDRH determined for the first time the chances of success for IVF treatment over cumulative IVF cycles. This world-first study, which followed thousands of individual cases and combined masses of data, will fundamentally change clinical practice in IVF from here on in.

 “It generated an enormous amount of interest,” Chambers says.

 She adds that the CBDRH is the sort of revolutionary, world-class facility that will be at the core of similar medical research in the future.

 “[Mining big health data] has to be done in a group that has the capacity to do it – you need a critical mass of expertise - the statistical expertise, the mathematical modeling, the machine-learning techniques, the cutting edge techniques. You can’t do that as a one-man show,” she says.

 “There would be no point in us being a whole bunch of data experts sitting around without clinical ties and health research expertise. Here at the CBDRH, we have both.”

 Because a futuristic research centre like this has to cope with data that’s growing exponentially every year, it needs high-performing, highly secure IT infrastructure. And that’s why, Chambers says, the CBDRH is building a whole new set of IT infrastructure to take it to the next level.

 Its biggest problem now will be keeping up with new research requests.

 “The challenge for us is going to be coping with the demand,” says Jorm. “What started as a trickle is now almost a flood.”

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Date Published
Wednesday, 18 October 2017

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