The Federal Health Department plans to take a “refreshed approach” to accessing general practice research and data, after withdrawing funding from the Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health (BEACH) program.
A spokesperson for the Department said this would involve finding opportunities to better use existing assets such as general practice (GP) clinical management systems and the National Prescribing Service’s MedicineInsight dataset.
“The Department of Health is looking to develop a more contemporary means of accessing general practice and primary health care research and data, to guide decision making and policy development,” the spokesperson said.
“Current reforms in primary health care require a refreshed approach to research and data.”
BEACH researchers stopped collecting data in April when it became clear it would not receive sufficient funding to continue. The Department of Health had provided about $300,000 per annum to the BEACH program over the past 5 years – less than 20% of its operating costs. Most of its funding came from other sources, such as non-government organisations and pharmaceutical companies whose contributions had been falling.
BEACH founding director Professor Helena Britt said the program was the only continuous national study of GPs in the world that forced linkage of the management action – including procedures, referrals, pharmaceuticals and pathology – to the problem being managed at that point.
In the past, the program had provided detailed data on alcohol intake, overweight and obesity in children, rates of depression and the prevalence of multi-morbidities among patients.
“We would love to move forward into downloaded electronic data, which could make meaningful information. Unfortunately it doesn’t make meaningful information [in its current form],” Professor Britt said.
“You’ve got to treat it like big data. This is because there’s a lack of a basic standardised structure in the health record.”
Professor Britt said Australia faced potentially big changes in how GPs practise, particularly with the introduction of the Medicare rebate freeze and medical homes. Without BEACH, there would be no standard method by which to validate any electronic method of data collection.
The University of Sydney plans to maintain the BEACH databases and interactive web server, as well as facilitate ongoing analytical services relating to the existing data. The university will also provide funds for the analysis of the 2015–16 BEACH data.
Professor Lyndal Trevena, joint head of the Discipline of General Practice at the University of Sydney, was optimistic that a “BEACH 2.0” would be established.
“Our concern is that [BEACH has] been closed quite suddenly without any thought to transition to newer models of data collection,” Professor Trevena said.
“We want to make sure we can get the best we can out of all the possible datasets. We’re not necessarily duplicating effort, but we’re trying to see where the gaps are and how they could be filled.
“In the future, at some point, hopefully we will start recollecting data.”
The Department of Health spokesperson said a Health Policy Research and Data Program had been established from 1 July 2016, from which future investment in primary health research and data would be sourced.