ACCENTURE: Tell us about your role and responsibilities at the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare?

BARRY SANDISON: I’m the CEO of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. I joined in 2016 after about 30 years working in other parts of public service. I've always been in areas where the focus is on Australians but the work has been more on the social policy and service delivery side. Moving to the Institute was an opportunity to come to an organisation where the focus is still on people, but where it is about the evidence base and there is independence.

Our vision is about the creation of a stronger evidence base. Stronger evidence leads to better decisions and improved health and welfare. We have a lot of very committed people who look at how can we bring information together, how we can better understand data and give context to statistics.

I make a bridge between our data capabilities and the policy and service delivery agencies. We work with Commonwealth and state-level organisations and progressively would like to assist the not-for-profit world to bring all that data together in a scientific, evidence-based way.

A: Given that you have numerous responsibilities, how do you juggle these and what are your top priorities?

BS: When I look at our priorities, there are some overarching issues. There has been a conversation around for years about the social determinants of health. However, there are also a lot of health determinants for other social issues such as how one’s health impacts on their employment or education. Really, everything is intertwined, so I like to call this "the social determinants of everything". When trying to gain an understanding of the whole picture, it is important that we look at the social determinants of everything. We are increasingly trying to do this at the Institute instead of looking at health and social issues separately.

We aim to, with all appropriate privacy and confidentiality, understand the pathways that people take. For example, using longitudinal data about people receiving Specialist Homelessness Services provides the ability to explore the circumstances of those who may need a short period of support, and those who return to services or need support over longer periods. Our data shows that in general, people who need support over a longer time or over multiple years, are more likely to have a number of vulnerabilities such as family and domestic violence, mental health, and/or drug and alcohol issues.

We may not necessarily need to know the individual, but we can understand the different pathways that they take in moving through the various support systems and between those systems.

The number one priority for me with the Institute is that we must remain a trusted strategic partner. We must be critically minded and be expert sources of value-added analysis. It goes back to my previous point, it is not just the statistics that are important or the data, it is the context that we can give.

Using our primary visualisation tools, we can put a lot more information on the AIHW website to allow people to make their own judgment about what's important to look at and then we provide a summary through our reports. Our job is to identify key information, undertake some critical analysis, and then present a lot of well thought through information in better ways. This enables people to interact with the information, and analyse or understand it in their own way.

One of our key focal points is about the different domains of people data. We don’t just look at health data, we look at housing, education, schools, employment, income, finance, social support, justice and safety.

A: When you look into the future, how do you see your current set of tools evolving?

BS: One area where we have made real progress is with data linkage. We work with government agencies at all levels and look at the possibilities for really enhancing the understanding about how people are serviced, or not serviced, by the support systems that are available. Central to this data use, is looking at how to match or link data.

The Institute is a fairly conservative organisation and we expect to be trusted and acknowledged for doing the right thing with use of data. It is the reason why we have our own ethics committee, to make sure that we are meeting all the requirements of the appropriate legislation.

Technology—having the right suite of tools—is critical. But so too is having the awareness of—and engaging with—the emerging sources of data. We cannot just work with the same data sources that we have been using for years. We have to look at all those data opportunities and sources at the same time and help people to understand what's possible, but always remaining within the realm of privacy and confidentiality. Above all, the security of our data is paramount.

A: Do you look at technologies emerging in other industries and assess whether or not there's relevance for the work of the Institute?

BS: Our amazing staff are always looking at what's happening elsewhere and obviously with a healthy degree of scepticism, but also with interest. Is it really going to be appropriate? What are the controls in place? We are looking at what's happening elsewhere and that informs our thinking.

A: How do you think of innovation in the context of the Institute?

BS: One of our key focal points is about the different domains of people data. We don’t just look at health data, we look at housing, education, schools, employment, income, finance, social support, justice and safety. This is back to the issue of the social determinants of everything. I don’t know that you would call it innovation, but it is certainly fresh thinking about older issues.

As well as looking across areas of social policy, you also need to have geography in mind as well. There is a huge opportunity to really help communities. To help them better understand what are the issues facing them and to get insight into what's happening in their local area (in order for them to create local solutions that will work for their community). That is different from just providing high-level statistics at a government level.

A: How do you demonstrate to your stakeholders or to your board, the value of technology investments?

BS: We work very hard to enable others to achieve their strategic goals through a better evidence base. It is the health consumers and health professionals and those that manage the health and community service systems, that make the key decisions. They really rely on the accuracy of our reporting.

Our role is to make sure that the information and statistics that underpin those decisions are seen as a central part of the decision making process and that our work is seen as a high-quality service. In terms of technology, we need to demonstrate to ourselves that we have the right technology to enable us to perform our work to a high standard. That might be having the right statistical tools or it might be having the scale of systems support needed to manage the ever increasing size of the data sets we manage.

We also need to make sure that the evidence base is accessible to others so we can base our decisions on a robust foundation. Again, technology plays its part, whether it is how data can be visualised on our web site or how a key data set can be remotely accessed in a secure environment.

A: Tell us more about some of the work you are doing at the Institute.

BS: The AIHW recently released the report, "Australia's Welfare" which is one of our two flagship reports. Every second year we do, "Australia's Welfare" and every other year we do, "Australia’s Health".

In "Australia’s Welfare," we published some information about loneliness and there's not a lot of data in that area. It's a commentary about the limited attention in this area and what role we can play to highlight through data what might be missing in services and systems to support people. Having the capacity in an organisation such as the AIHW to make decisions about what we can report on is a great opportunity and a great responsibility. We search out the areas where there is insufficient information and where possible shine a light on them. We've done that across a range of areas.

Another example is the strategic relationship we have with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. We have done some very significant work around suicide of veterans by drilling into the data from multiple perspectives. We’ve also done a lot with cancer data and vaccination data. Burden of disease is a key area where we not only conducted the work several years ago, but we have updated it and brought in the financial expenditure relationship with burden of disease. We provide powerful insights for decision makers who might otherwise never get that understanding.

"I work with data" is not necessarily a big conversation starter around the barbecue, but when you do understand how powerful the evidence is, it's a really good reason to be motivated in your work.

A: On a more personal note, what is it you most enjoy about your job and what is it that inspires and motivates you?

BS: Number one is the fact that I am involved with a very dedicated group of people that work at the Institute; the huge majority of staff target this as the place they want to come to. We have a lot of highly qualified, expert people who can see their work having an impact.

For me, to come along and be involved in leading an organisation with people who are just so committed to what we are doing is a great opportunity. The big challenge for me is to continue to improve how we provide insights to others through our work with data. We can take data, create information and insights on really interesting issues facing everyday Australians and we guide others to that information. It is this that really provides me with a great "get up out of bed" kind of level of enthusiasm.

Barry Sandison

CEO – Australian Institute of Health and Welfare


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