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Clinical variation: why it matters

Understanding variation in care is an important step in improving patient health outcomes through appropriate care

Variation in health care usage is a troubling feature of contemporary medicine. For similar populations, usage of medications, interventions and procedures may be very different and lead to variation in outcomes. The following articles discuss why exploring unwarranted variation is a priority for health care systems; how atlases of health care variation act as catalysts of change and what health care systems can do to increase appropriate care. In this context, the Australian health care systems’ response to the problem of unwarranted health care variation is considered.

In November 2015, the Hon Sussan Ley, federal Minister for Health, launched the Australian atlas of healthcare variation.1 The Atlas, the first in a series, looks at variation in health care use at population level for 36 clinical activities including medication dispensing, diagnostic and surgical interventions and interventions for chronic diseases. International data, where available, are included and provide context. For example, Australia’s rate of dispensing of antibiotics is almost double that of Canada. This variation is consistent with a large body of evidence including that from a recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, which included Australian data.