National mental health information priorities 2nd edition

1.5 - Scope of the national mental health information priorities

Page last updated: June 2005

The breadth of the mental health field and the many related developments in health information that are in train throughout Australia make it important to be clear about the scope of this document – that is, about what is covered and what is not.

1.5.1 Focus on 'national information'
1.5.2 Focus on the mental health service sector
1.5.3 Focus on information use as well as content
1.5.4 Relationship to mental health research

1.5.1 Focus on 'national information'

The priorities outlined are concerned with national information. The concept of 'national health information' has been defined previously as "...information that is comparable nationally, national in coverage, or nationally relevant."2

The concept also encompasses information that is cross-jurisdictional (Australian and State and Territory governments and other agencies, public and private) and that requires cooperation and coordination between jurisdictions for health information activities to proceed on a coherent basis.

Within the mental health context, national information is concerned with a number of domains including:
  • mental health interventions and services at the individual and population level, the consumers of those services and their outcomes;

  • the mental health of the population generally and of specific groups;

  • the determinants of the population's mental health, including those in the external environment and those internal to individuals; and

  • the relationship between these elements.
This document therefore is not a strategic plan on how information systems will be developed, nor is it a prescription that binds each of the parties to the National Mental Health Strategy on how information technology should be managed within their jurisdictions. It is instead a statement of common intent, which pursues agreed directions to the extent that is possible for each of the parties.

This focus on national information, rather than the technical aspects of systems development, is based on a recognition of how responsibilities are distributed across Australia's federated system of governments. Within this, each State and Territory jurisdiction is responsible for the design, funding and organisational arrangements for public sector mental health service delivery, including the information environments in which those services operate.

While differences exist between the jurisdictions in their arrangements for mental health information, the release of this document under the framework of the National Mental Health Strategy reflects the commitment by all parties to:
  • implement changes within the services under their control, or influence, in a consistent manner for the purpose of nationally pooling and sharing information in the future; and

  • continue the collaboration that has been a feature of the past decade in pursuing the work program outlined in this document.Top of page

1.5.2 Focus on the mental health service sector

The principal focus of the work foreshadowed by this document is on specialist mental health services.3 Reform of the specialty sector was the original 'core business' of the National Mental Health Strategy and continues to be the area that generates most community attention.

However, the priorities include a recognition of the need to extend information development beyond an exclusive concern with specialist services. The framework advocates a number of initiatives in areas that fall outside the specialist public sector, including:
  • private hospital psychiatric services;

  • primary mental health care – to address the critical role played by general practitioners; and

  • emergency departments within general hospitals – recognising the role played by these services in providing a front line response for many people presenting in psychiatric crises.
Additionally, the work program includes steps to further improve our understanding of mental health and mental disorders in the Australian population and support future promotion and prevention efforts that are advocated by the National Mental Health Plan 2003-2008.

1.5.3 Focus on information use as well as content

Historically, the target of national-level agreements on health information has been on content, emphasising the importance of consistent definitions and standards for data collection and reporting. These concerns also underpin the current statement on national mental health priorities, but are complemented by an equal focus on how information is used. This recognises that the effectiveness of mental health information depends not only on the relevance of its content, but also on the way that information is applied for a range of purposes.

Particular emphasis is given to the application of information to improve the quality of mental health services and outcomes for consumers, as well as to improve our understanding of mental health needs in Australia.

1.5.4 Relationship to mental health research

This statement on national priorities incorporates a research and development component but, while recognising the close relationship between the two, does not constitute a mental health research strategy as such. The National Mental Health Plan 2003-2008 includes a separate commitment to a national mental health research and development strategy, which is foreshadowed to 'take a strong, forward-looking approach to research development and sustainability'.4

The boundary between an information development strategy and a research and development strategy is not easy to define when it is considered how information is essential to research. However, a national approach to information development is expected to support mental health research.

For example, the promotion of data standards and consistency in routine information collections generates a wide range of data, in significant volumes, that is readily accessible to researchers. Some of this work has already been done, as in the introduction of standardised assessment measures in all Australian mental health services that provides a basis for future research on the outcomes of clinical care.Top of page


2 National Health Information Management Group (2002). Health Information Development Priorities. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Canberra.
3 Specialised mental health services are defined under the National Mental Health Strategy as those health services where the primary function is specifically to provide treatment, rehabilitation or community support targeted towards people affected by a mental disorder or psychiatric disability, with this criterion being applicable regardless of the source of funds; and where such activities are delivered from a service or facility that is readily identifiable as both specialised and serving a mental health function (Department of Health and Ageing, 2004a).
4 Australian Health Ministers (2002). National Mental Health Plan 2003-2008. Australian Government, Canberra.