Researchers and aged care stakeholders have raised concern over the Federal Government’s plan to fold the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) into a new super agency, which was confirmed in the 2014-15 Budget.
The government said it planned to work with the states and territories to merge AIHW into a newly created Health Productivity and Performance Commission along with Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, Independent Hospitals Pricing Authority, National Health Funding Body, National Health Funding Pool Administrator and National Health Performance Authority.
According to the Budget papers, estimated staffing levels at AIHW are expected to fall to 294 in 2014-15, from 315 in last year’s Budget.
AIHW has been providing health and welfare information and statistics since 1987, and only last month launched the National Aged Care Data Clearinghouse, a centralised repository of national aged care data.
Using commonwealth and state datasets AIHW covers the health and welfare of all Australians from children to prisoners, health expenditure and chronic diseases in addition to ageing, aged care and HACC services. There are over 175 publications on its website under the aged care subject alone.
In addition to annual reports on the residential and community care packages, the AIHW has reported on depression in residential aged care, dementia care in hospitals, hospitalisations among older people due to falls and younger people living in residential aged care to name but a few of its key studies.
AIHW is a heavily-utilised resource among researchers and other aged care stakeholders and some have raised concerns that a merged entity and diminished resources could impact the quantity and quality of future reporting.
Dr Siobhan O’Dwyer, a research fellow at Griffith University’s Centre for Health Practice Innovation, said the AIHW was a key source of high quality, reliable data on health and wellbeing in Australia and a valuable resource for researchers, health professionals, and the community at large.
“We need to be cautious until more information is released, but as a researcher I would be concerned that any merger might restrict AIHW’s ability to produce the breadth, depth, and quality of information it currently provides,” Dr O’Dwyer told AAA.
“When taken together with the fact that we no longer have a Minister for Ageing or an Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing, that Medicare Locals are being closed, that pensions are being recalculated, and that a co-payment is being added for GP visits, you have to wonder if the Abbott government is really taking the ageing population seriously,” she said.
Barbara Squires, head of research and advocacy at IRT, also raised concerns over the potential end to the AIHW saying that older people and aged care were already largely overlooked in the health and hospital system.
“My concern about AIHW being absorbed into a mega health-focused agency is that work relating to older people is likely to be swamped by the hospital and medical aspects of health.
“AIHW is a vital source of evidence on ageing and aged care. Losing its expertise would be a great setback to our sector’s capacity to understand what is happening at a national level and to predict and influence what is likely to happen in the future,” Ms Squires told AAA.
Edith Cowan University research fellow Dr Natalie Strobel specialises in chronic disease and mental health and worked at AIHW as a project officer for two years from 2009. She said she was a dedicated user of AIHW data because it provided her with impartial, accurate and bias-free data and was concerned the internationally reputable “AIHW brand” could be lost.
“AIHW has this brand that people know they can go to get this information and I guess it would be a concern if it got merged with other organisations that while the information would still be there there’s not that brand there that people know they can go to,” Dr Strobel told AAA.
She said she knew from her experience at AIHW that it took a lot of work to put out the publications and, while also remaining cautious until all the details were known, she questioned whether the merger would affect resources and in turn the quantity and quality of information being provided. “Potentially having reduced resources, you’re definitely not going to be able to put out the number of publications that you do,” she said. “At AIHW, one of the things that they are really interested in is having people who are really knowledgeable in their area and what makes publications so pertinent is they have got these specialists that produce them. Obviously if that diminishes, so too do the publications.”
Manager of innovation, policy and research at Benetas Dr Amee Morgans also highlighted the importance of the agency’s information and reports. She said the aged care data clearinghouse had offered a range of opportunities for the aged care industry, including continuous improvement and evidence-based improvements in client care and service provision in a number of areas.
“There is an opportunity for the use of data to examine the needs and current service use of older Australians and to assist the industry’s provision of Consumer Directed Care,” Dr Morgans told AAA. “A recent example of innovative use of the aged care data clearinghouse is Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Report on Depression in Aged Care, which used Aged Care Funding Instrument (ACFI) data to compare reported depression in aged care facilities, showing an example of how data collected can be used to demonstrate needs and stimulate public dialogue.”
An AIHW spokesperson said on Thursday that the AIHW was currently continuing to produce health and welfare statistics and related information and that the agency did not comment on government policy.