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Demi Gertig, optometrist and Strategic Project Advisor at Optometry Australia  

Big data is a term that has been gaining traction over the last decade, but many people may not have a clear understanding of what it actually means. In short, big data is the process of collating a large amount of information from numerous sources and sorting it in a meaningful way. Big data software is distinguished from traditional database software tools by its ability to move at high speed and unite a high variety of information assets, leading to enhanced insights and far better decision making. 

We often hear about data in a consumer context. For example, consider a loyalty program with a supermarket or an airline. The customer receives points on a transaction, and in return the company gains insights about the customer relating to what they are buying and when they’re buying it. Usually, the company is the one to benefit the most in this transaction, because the information they generate helps them to optimise their advertising to the customer and ultimately stimulate more transactions and make more money. Sometimes, this information is sold to third parties.  

Within the public health sector, this is not the kind of data nor the data-collecting processes that we refer to. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘information is power’. In a health care setting, big data is a way to gather relevant information and use it to improve our systems, protocols, and performance management at a practice and practitioner level, while also providing better cost-benefit analysis for decisions relating to patient management. This can be done safely and ethically. There is a huge opportunity across all areas of health to use de-identified data to analyse what’s happening in practices and hospitals across the country, and use the information to respond to the needs of patients and communities.  

Like many primary health care services in Australia, optometry is amid a health data drought. To date, no comprehensive, cross-provider, ongoing dataset exists at a national level in relation to how and why people access primary eye health care provided by optometrists. Additionally, there is no national dataset to track what occurs in individual consultations and the outcomes of these services. This is despite considerable investment in optometric services at a government and individual level. 

At Optometry Australia, we recognise the gravity of data as a tool. In Optometry 2040, Optometry Australia’s roadmap for the future of eye care, we note that big data is driving decision making all over the world, including in health care. If we’re going to move the profession forward, big data needs to be in the picture.  

In Europe, big data software is being used within public health and oncology to detect patterns and turn high volumes of data into actionable knowledge, which is improving patient outcomes. These are the models that we are looking at, and learning from.  

Optometry sits in a unique position across the allied health sector in this country. With only a small number of practice management software programs used in the profession, we have an advantageous opportunity for data gathering. The ability to rapidly extract de-identified information from practice management software and the potential to collate this with corporate-collected datasets positions optometry to be leaders in this space.  

Effective and targeted eye health care programs are underpinned by successful data collection and reporting. Ultimately, data tracking is a key component in avoiding preventable vision loss within our communities. 

In Australia, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), compiles and analyses big national data sets, enabling it to produce reports like the Australia’s Health report in 2022 and the Eye Health web report in 2021. Being able to achieve similar reporting through a national optometry dataset would ensure Optometry Australia can make a powerful contribution to informing discussion and policy decisions on eye health. I am certain there are pearls of wisdom that lie within our practice management systems, and that once combined, these figures in spreadsheets and software programs can translate to genuine improvements in funding, eye care standards and patient wellbeing.  

Over the last year at Optometry Australia we’ve been investigating how we can start working towards a national dataset for optometry, keeping top of mind issues like privacy protection and patient confidentiality. Since much of the data being generated is about people, we are critically aware of privacy concerns that may arise and we understand that the need for well thought out de-identification of data has never been more acute. De-identification of data will be a core aspect of developing this national dataset, allowing us to reduce any risk to individuals’ privacy and meet our ethical responsibilities.  

We look forward to sharing more information about this exciting project in the coming weeks.  

Filed in category: Advocacy & government, Scope of practice
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Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation Optometry Australia acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.