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05 October 2023

A JCU-led project has created a unique, interactive health map of North Queensland. The open-access resource provides a clearer picture of unmet community health needs, which have been exacerbated by crucial gaps in information sharing between multiple health systems in the region.

Launched in July 2022, the Northern Queensland Health Atlas is phase one of a million-dollar project, Integrating Health Care Planning for Health and Prosperity in North Queensland. The project aims to help healthcare providers, community advocates and health planners meet the varying needs of regional, rural and remote communities across five regions between Mackay and the Torres Strait.

According to the project’s lead investigator, Professor Sarah Larkins, a lack of coordination and targeted investment in planning and delivery of health services is leading to gaps and inefficiencies that are hampering health outcomes.

“Service providers and communities lack access to accurate information about community health and health service data, including the numbers and types of visiting health services,” Professor Larkins said.

"There are multiple sources of health and health workforce data available. But these are not always publicly available for rural communities, and organisations count information differently. For example, some staffing figures consist of a head count, while others report numbers of actual full-time workers. In addition, the defined geographic boundaries within which data are reported varies.”

Funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia and the Tropical Australian Academic Health Centre, the project brings together partners from across the health industry; in addition to hospital and health services, these include the North Queensland and Western Queensland Primary Health Networks, Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council and Apunipima Cape York Health Council.

Despite this support, compiling the Atlas was no easy feat. Alongside co-researchers, Project Senior Research Officer and Data Manager, Dr Karen Johnston, trawled through more than 50 publicly available data collections, as well as numerous data sets within those collections, to map both healthcare needs and health service provision throughout the region.

The end result is a highly detailed online health map which can be utilised by both healthcare providers and the communities they serve for health service planning and advocacy. It includes data on population, health status and behaviours (such as smoking habits, obesity and chronic conditions), hospital utilisation, health workforce, health care provision and service locations.

The Atlas is interactive, enabling users to overlay the different types of data to bring individual community needs into sharper focus, and also compare them with other communities.

“It can provide evidence of demand for healthcare services within communities, which is important for health industry planners trying to ensure effective use of resources and also for communities lobbying for changes in services,” Dr Johnston said.

The Atlas, combined with a gap analysis of unmet health needs in the region, was pivotal to prioritising which communities to invite to take part in phase two of the project. Following further consultation, local health and community stakeholders in Clermont, Hughenden and Kowanyama agreed to participate in place-based health planning to co-design, implement and evaluate new models of care.

“These three communities were prioritised because they represent diversity in this region — agricultural, mining and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community — and were experiencing unmet health needs. Communities are all unique. We can maximise our project learnings by exploring the different ways they function. They were also keen to participate,” said project manager, Dr Deb Smith.

Phase two is already well advanced. Following a series of workshops for local health stakeholders and community members, the place-based planning process has been completed in Clermont and Hughenden, and implementation of prioritised action plans are now underway. The same process is due to begin soon in Kowanyama.

The Integrated Health Care Planning project will conclude in June 2024. However, the team has already compiled a Gap Analysis of Health Needs and Services Report and drafted guidelines: Process guidelines for participatory place-based health service co-design for health planning in north Queensland, to share their learnings to date.

They have also documented their research experiences in Democratising data to address health system inequities in Australia, which was published in BMJ Global Health on 17 May 2023.


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