NZ health sector ‘data rich, information poor’

“The New Zealand health sector is data rich and information poor. We continue to amass data at an increasing rate, but we are not turning this into information," Dr Barry Borman says.

Dr Barry Borman, associate director of Massey's Centre
for Public Health Research.

New Zealand faces a critical shortage of skilled practitioners able to analyse, interpret and disseminate data needed to inform and improve health services for New Zealanders.

Associate Director of Massey University’s Centre for Public Health Research and Professor of Epidemiology Barry Borman says New Zealand is competing in the global space in this area, and needs to generate homegrown capability to fill a real need.

Massey’s Master of Analytics (Health), the first New Zealand programme designed to address this skill shortage, gives graduates the tools, skills and techniques to turn health data into robust information to guide policy development and decision making across the health sector. The programme has been designed in collaboration with the major organisations in the health sector, including the Ministry of Health, Statistics New Zealand and district health boards.

“Internationally there is clear demand for people with specific health analytics skills, and this is predicted to grow. There is a huge amount of data being collected in the health sector, but a gap remains in the amount of qualified people to analyse, interpret and translate these into meaningful information that can be used to improve our health services and outcomes,” Professor Borman says.

“The New Zealand health sector is data rich and information poor. We continue to amass data at an increasing rate, but we are not turning this into information. The investment is in software and hardware, not human ware. Data is at the bottom of the hierarchy, and without analysis it is not useful information or knowledge. The health system requires information, and knowledge, to make evidence-based decisions and policies,” he says.

Dr Borman believes there is a lack of investment in the human resourcing side to make it work.

“All countries are struggling with the data deluge. We have ‘data farms’ but no ‘information farms’. There is a common belief that faster computers and better software will result in more information. But humans are best at analysing, interpreting, translating and disseminating information. Humans make data useful.

“Policy makers don’t have the time or expertise to sift through data. They need targeted information to see if the investment they are making is paying off, if the needs of the community are being met and if issues are emerging that they need to address. If the evidence needed to make a decision isn’t available, a common response is to start another study or build another data collection system, but then you have policy-based evidence,” he says.

But it does pose a major question. Is it ethical to collect data that will not be analysed? “We are collecting data in the expectation it might be analysed by someone, sometime, somewhere. When it isn’t, we collect more data. We don’t analyse the data available, because we don’t have the analysts.” 

Students will learn the skills, tools and critical thinking that can be immediately translated into current or future workplaces, using Massey’s computer lab which has dedicated access to the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), a large research database containing microdata about people and households from a range of government agencies.

The Master of Analytics (Health) comprises four core courses and three specialist health focused courses: research methods in public health, health systems thinking, and health communication. In the last phase of study students will complete an applied analytics project, where the knowledge and skills learnt will be utilised to address a real-world problem in collaboration with an organisation from the health industry.

The Master of Analytics (Health) will be available at Massey’s Wellington campus in semester two 2017. For more information visit the Master of Analytics (Health) programme page.

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