New ways of viewing the rural health landscape – the role of research and data

Friday, 16 September 2016

More than 100 experts in rural and remote health research gathered this week at Old Parliament House in Canberra for the 5th Rural and Remote Health Scientific Symposium, to discuss a range of current and future challenges for the rural and remote health research sector and explore new ways of working together to improve health outcomes for the 7 million people who live in rural and remote Australia. 

The biennial Symposium was convened by the National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA), in partnership with the Federation of Rural Australian Medical Educators (FRAME), the Australian Primary Health Care Research and Information Service (PHCRIS), and the Australian Rural Health Education Network (ARHEN).  Generous support was also provided from the University of Wollongong, Curtin University, University of Queensland and the Sydney University School of Rural Health.

Key topics examined during the 2-day meeting included insights into new ways of incorporating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and understanding of health and wellbeing into mainstream health policy and programs. The influence of social determinants – e.g. racism and practice of culture - in affecting health outcomes was also highlighted, and the critical issue of ensuring appropriate sufficiency, capability, distribution, integration and support of workforce in areas of greatest need.

Representatives from Australia’s key data agencies – the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the  Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) – provided information around a number of the new linked national datasets, including the Mental Health Services – Census Data Integration project and the Multi-Agency Data Integration Project, as well as recently augmented data holdings including 5 years of de-identified Medicare benefits Schedule (MBS) and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) data and the value of data available from Primary Health Network and hospital performance reporting including through the MyHealthyCommunities and MyHospitals websites.

Key emerging themes included discussion on how increased focus in recent years on finer-scale reporting of data provides new information to researchers and policy-makers that can enable better targeting of health services to identified areas of need.   Data linkage work is also improving, and can be used to inform topics such as patterns of health care service use, quality and safety of services, risks to particular patient cohorts, and management of chronic disease.

Data integration projects provided insights into how people are accessing different services across different areas of Australia, enabling better targeting of services to address areas of greatest need.

Participants agreed on the importance of the role of research and data in providing quality evidence to inform government efforts to aligning existing programs to workforce planning and service delivery – especially in ensuring better access in rural and remote areas.  The role of Primary Health Networks in research and health service improvement including as partners in research projects, users of evidence and potential holders of data on health needs, health service usage and health workforce distribution in their regions remains an area of ongoing interest.

The full program and links to all speaker presentations can be found on the Symposium website at