Data linkage: overcoming a potential injury prevention obstacle

I am not an expert in data linkage, nor am I up to the challenge of linking various data sources, however I am acutely aware that NOT linking data is a huge obstacle for injury prevention. Without the base information which is provided by data linkage, we (and by we I am referring not only to my injury prevention researchers, practitioners and policy-maker colleagues; I am also referring to politicians, the media and others who state ‘the facts’ and control the research funds) struggle to gain accurate insight into the injury we are all working to prevent.

However, data linkage is not as simple as merging two data files (although, having said that, merging two data files is not always straightforward either!). For the uninitiated, there are a number of approaches which can be used, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Irrespective of the data linkage method utilised, there may be additional problems which relate to the quality of the data linked, such as data completeness, accuracy and scope.

Not only are there problems in linking data files, and difficulties related to the data itself, there are also pitfalls and perils associated with actually accessing the data files. Researchers must traverse the tricky waters that are the essential paperwork of Human Research Ethics Committees. With the exception of a National Ethics Application Form, virtually every Australian injury-prevention-related institution (research and medical) uses their own Ethics form(s) and has their own mandates regarding the Ethics and research practice and process.

I hope you are not disheartened by the story so far…. Indeed, to help place the potential data linkage obstacle in perspective, Mitchell, Cameron and Bambach discuss these various issues in detail in their recent publication “Data linkage for injury surveillance and research in Australia: perils, pitfalls and potential” (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24890486).  The authors close with a recommendation for “better accessibility and use of existing data collections for injury research” as vital steps in our injury prevention pathways.

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