The Northern Queensland Health Atlas is an open-access, online visual tool that gives users the ability to filter and overlay data on the burden of disease or ill health, socio-demographic information, the availability of general practice and other specialist services, as well as indicators of health system performance in specific geographic areas.

Community members in the north west Queensland town of Hughenden will soon be the first to trial place-based health service planning using the health atlas data. It is anticipated the project will extend to another three communities across northern and central Queensland.

The atlas is a key component of the Integrating Health Care Planning for Health and Prosperity in North Queensland Project, to pilot the principles of place-based planning. It is funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA), part of the Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centre Program (CRCP), with a financial contribution from the Tropical Australian Academic Health Centre (TAAHC).

CRCNA CEO Anne Stünzner said place-based planning was crucial to ensure the best use of resources for the best possible return at all levels of health planning.

“The CRCNA is excited the health atlas is a first step toward a much broader application of this principle,” Ms Stünzner said.

“This project is a great example of industry-led research driving meaningful outcomes for communities, giving people on the ground something tangible to coalesce around and advocate for.

Planning unique to communities

Co-investigator, JCU Associate Professor Stephanie Topp, said the atlas addressed one of the main barriers to place-based health planning: data accessibility.

“The information that would inform decisions about how a health service could or should run is located in so many different places, not just within Queensland but Australia,” A/Prof Topp said.

“The idea of place-based planning is to bring the data and the decision-making processes around health service formation and coordination closer to the communities themselves.

“The health atlas increases the accessibility and agility with which health needs can be compared to service access and availability. Joined-up information like this is the basis of good planning and efficient use of resources. The atlas, as a proof of concept, is an important flag for the need for something like this at a much larger scale.”

Advocacy and change at local level

In the second phase of the three-year project, community members will use the atlas data and local knowledge to identify opportunities to improve efficiencies in health service delivery.  Community members will be involved in co-design discussions to identify local issues and contribute to strategies that can be implemented in the project’s third phase.

Local project officers will facilitate a series of workshopped discussions with local stakeholders, including community members and health providers, on the health needs indicated in the atlas, forming a collaborative group who will identify feasible actions to address gaps at the local level. Whilst the project concludes in April 2024, changes aim to be sustainable beyond the project.

The project is a partnership with TAAHC, including the five northern hospitals and health services, the NQ Primary Health Network and Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council.  Partners from the Northern Territory and Kimberley are also involved.

A/Prof Topp said a goal of the project was to create a process that allowed local stakeholders to participate in and regain control of some of the healthcare decision making in their communities, generating the momentum to address structural issues through advocacy.

“There’s a dual benefit of taking control of those pieces that are able to be managed at a local level and empowering people to have a louder and more assertive voice when it comes to advocating for change at the central level,” she said.

Democratising data

Along with A/Prof Topp, the research team comprises Dr Deb Smith (project manager), Dr Karen Johnston (data manager), Professor Sarah Larkins (lead investigator), Professor Maxine Whittaker and (co-investigator) and Dr Alex Edelman (co-investigator).

Dr Smith and Dr Johnston sourced the atlas statistics from many disparate databases, including the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Federal Department of Health, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Queensland Health.

A/Prof Topp said the challenges the two highly skilled JCU researchers faced in locating, curating, and collating the health atlas data for northern Queensland emphasised the nonsensical nature of Australia’s data ecosystem.

“We need to democratise access to this publicly funded, publicly collected data,” she said.

“Data, not necessarily with malign intent, but nonetheless, is inaccessible to the vast majority of Australians. It takes significant research, expertise, diligence, time and money to curate it in a way that makes it usable by the average service planner or programmer, let alone a service provider.

“Making that data more accessible to everyone in the health system, including those who need to use it, can only serve to better inform and promote the sorts of decisions that will produce better health outcomes.

“We are pulling together a paper which reflects on our experience and the effort that had to be put into locating the data, de-duplicating it, extracting the information that was applicable to the different geographic boundaries to which it’s applied, and then bringing it together in a form that was easily usable by someone who wasn’t necessarily a computing genius.”

She said the Northern Queensland Health Atlas was intuitive and operable by users at all levels.

“We should have a tool like this for the whole country,” she said. “It is astounding that we continue to plan services in the absence of joined-up information about health needs, service access and service performance. Every community should be able to look at their own profile.”

Ms Stünzner said the CRCNA’s 2020 health situational analysis on health service delivery, led by the same JCU team, clearly identified the need for improved access to accurate and timely data to better inform decision making across all levels of health funding and planning.

“It’s great to see this team building on their earlier work and addressing this gap to the benefit of the broader Northern Australian community,” she said.

A/Prof Topp said the atlas had generated excitement among project partners and industry stakeholders.

“We knew intuitively that there wasn’t a tool like this easily available, but I think we had underestimated the enthusiasm for getting over the hump of making a start,” she said. “The fact that people can now see what this atlas makes available has really produced a lot of enthusiasm for seeing how we can further build on it.”

Learn about the new Northern Queensland Health Atlas at a webinar at 10am on Friday 22 July.

Register for the webinar

A new approach is needed to manage shared water resources in Northern Australia (the North), to ameliorate the impacts of drought and flooding events and to provide opportunities and confidence to produce new agricultural products for high value markets.

Following a period of foundational research activity, including a series of sector based situational analyses, the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA) is now in a position to consolidate its approach and invest in a number of large-scale initiatives to underpin its role in developing the north.

One of these initiatives is progressing the Water Security for North Australia Program (WSNA) which presents an opportunity to jointly deliver a series of flagship research activities for the CRCNA across several ‘game-changing’ research initiatives that will deliver long-term benefit for the region.

The Northern Australia University Alliance (NAUA) Charles Darwin University (CDU), CQUniversity Australia (CQU) and James Cook University (JCU) have partnered with the CRCNA to undertake a research-focused approach to this challenge by building on recent collaborative regional research proposals.

The partnership acknowledges the full potential of Northern Australia and this co-investment is a vital opportunity to demonstrate that economic growth and environmentally healthy and sustainable eco-systems can coexist in a water context.

The objective of the program of research activities is to de-risk the Northern Australian investment and development landscape by improving water sustainability across the region and providing a pathway for the future development of key sectors as well as improving the health and wellbeing of the north’s communities.

Initially the partnership will support the CRCNA to identify key research priorities and those opportunities that can be sensibly advanced within Northern Australia.

Identifying technologies and solutions for tropical, tropical savannas and remote arid areas are much less developed or non-existent. Unfortunately, despite the massive investment in Australia and globally, the water management challenges peculiar to the north of Australia are still to be addressed.

Such challenges include: a general lack of water planning, remote and disparate small communities, a lack of skilled labour, harsh environments, broad stakeholder diversity and cultures, limited models and capacity for extension and adoption, distance from high-value markets, emerging and poorly understood water-borne diseases, and exploring potential improvements in farming management practices to increase productivity potentials, demonstrate environmental sustainability and maintain social license.

Through the partnership and subsequent research initiatives based on de-risking investment, activating the indigenous estate and commodity integration, the CRCNA is looking to identify feasible innovative solutions to address several key themes emerging from the activity to date.

As an example, CRCNA is investigating the research theme ‘Platforms for water trading in Northern Australia’ by funding the current project ‘Scaling Next Generation Water Markets in Northern Australia’ which is exploring the interconnectedness between water market design and institutional governance goals to address water security and social equity issues relating to water access.

Additional identified research themes include;

  • ‘Innovation in Water Storage and Extraction’ – Finding solutions in off-stream capture and storage, potential for ground water system use, under-ground storage and recharge and reducing storage water losses.
  • ‘New Water Efficient Cropping Systems’ – Developing high value, integrated production systems, development and enhanced supply chains and value adding opportunities and establishment of effective water and ecosystem service markets.
  • ‘New Catchment Scale Development Models’ – Undertaking new water allocation and water development planning, exploring low impact catchment development models and meeting and exceeding reef regulation in new development
  • ‘Mobilising Indigenous Water Resources’ – Supporting traditional owners through good practice approaches to identifying cultural values and Indigenous allocations in water plans. The work aims to help secure safe and reliable water supplies for Indigenous and rural communities.
  • ‘Lifting Human Capacity and Skills in Water Sector’ – Developing new approaches and partnerships to lift human capacities and skills to help deliver water security in Northern Australia

Ultimately the CRCNA, through this Alliance will fund research to develop innovative new tools, processes and systems which address key industry and end-user identified development of northern water resource challenges.

All project synthesis through the partnership will be place-based to ensure practicality is realised and incorporated into research outputs to provide true value to multiple end users, but also incorporate integration at a whole of Northern Australia level perspective.

Future activity will be focused on enhancing and improving water security across Northern Australia. Ensuring the north has the regionally appropriate and forward-facing policy frameworks, technologies, skilled workers, shared management culture and knowledge needed to sustainably expand utilisation of its water resources. Mitigate the impacts of weather events and drought and provide opportunities to grow high-value agricultural products for existing and emerging markets.