A new project is underway to build a real-time reporting system that shows where and how COVID-19 is impacting Australia’s health system.

The Digital Health Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) project is a collaboration between three Primary Health Networks (PHN) in Victoria (Eastern Melbourne, Gippsland and South Eastern Melbourne) along with Macquarie University, Outcome Health and the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (Quality Assurance Programs).

“In this project we’ll use real time data to guide our decision-making,” says Dr Elizabeth Deveny, the CEO of South Eastern Melbourne PHN.

“COVID-19 has shown us how fast things can change in a health environment,” she says.

She adds that general practice faces more than one current health crisis.

“General Practice is at the forefront of the pandemic impacts, including consults with positive and negative patients.  They see the indirect health consequences to social isolation and social distancing, including a rise in substance abuse, family violence, mental health issues.  General Practice is seeing a whole separate pandemic that is running in parallel to COVID-19.”

She says the consequences of the pandemic will likely continue for years. “Having the real-time data will help us see how things are changing, respond more effectively in our local area, and provide evidence-based advice to policymakers.”

Dr Deveny says that the data collected during the project will go back to general practice participants in regular reports and via data dashboards, so they can better respond to changing conditions.

Professor Andrew Georgiou from the Australian Institute of Health Innovation at Macquarie University says that primary care is in the frontline of the health system.

“In a COVID-19 situation, you want to know what’s happening immediately – we are already seeing a second wave in various places, and primary care is where this often shows up first.”

The data will go further than simply identifying COVID-19 hot-spots, he adds. Examples could include medications prescribed, the number of tests ordered or carried out and referrals made.

“We will look at recent trends and near real-time data to see the impact of COVID-19 on different areas of care,” he says, adding an example may be low compliance with chronic disease appointments.

“Surveys only provide a snapshot; but with data that’s near real-time, not only can we pick things up almost immediately, we also get a far bigger dataset over a period of time so we can analyse with much greater statistical confidence.”

His team will use machine learning to delve deep into the data and investigate emerging patterns.

Adam McLeod is the CEO of Outcome Health, creator of the POLAR (Population Level Analysis and Reporting) tool.

The web-based platform takes de-identified patient data extracted securely from general practice software to deliver population health planning information to Primary Health Networks in Victoria, ACT and NSW.

Mr McLeod says that using the de-identified data from general practice sources needed to be done carefully and sensitively and Outcome Health takes great responsibility around that.

“It was important to partner with people we trust, who the PHNs trust and who can work with and understand the context of the data.  General Practice is a complex environment, so having the right partners is essential,” he said.

“This project brings together key expertise that can rapidly and safely establish a real-time geo-spatial reporting framework, to quickly understand how the spread of COVID-19 has hit our health system,” says Dr Michael Costello, interim CEO of the Digital Health CRC.

“We will be able to see the impact of interventions and policy decisions almost immediately, and at the same time build a secure foundation so we can use general practice data to shape decision-making and policy.”

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