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One giant step for secure data access

Michael Chapman, Director of Research and Clinical Trials at NHS Digital, talks about our new Secure Data Environment and explains how it is making research into life-saving treatments easier and faster.

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we built the Trusted Research Environment (TRE) service for England to enable researchers from the NHS, government, academia and industry to contribute to our collective response to the disease.

Our TRE service proved invaluable in understanding the impact of COVID-19 and the efficacy of treatments, but it wasn’t scalable or flexible enough for the wider community of researchers who we want to support.

The author Michael Chapman

Two and a half years later, we are evolving the service to become a national Secure Data Environment. This upgraded platform forms the core of a service we are building to align with the proposals in the Goldacre review and Data saves lives strategy, as well as meeting data commitments set out in the UK’s Life Sciences Vision.

The national Secure Data Environment service is a vital part of an interoperable network of NHS Secure Data Environments for research funded by the NHS England Data for Research and Development Programme. In December 2022, NHS England awarded over £13.5 million funding to support the development of Sub National Secure Data Environments. These are NHS-led and bring together integrated care boards with local universities and industry partners to build on existing collaborations and successful research partnerships.

Once it is fully launched, it will become the default way to access the NHS health and social care data held by NHS Digital.

An evolving national Secure Data Environment

We had already begun improving our Trusted Research Environment service when the government announced funding to boost heath care research in March 2022, which enabled us to accelerate our work.

The national SDE service encompasses the Data Access Request Service, current TRE service, the national SDE platform and the Data Access Environment – it will also be an important enabler for our NHS DigiTrials service.

Our Secure Data Environment sets out to:
  • offer more healthcare data sets to approved users of the service
  • introduce new functionality to support greater collaboration between approved researchers and improve accessibility
  • continue to protect confidential information

Our national SDE platform is now in beta. Once it is fully launched, it will become the default way to access the NHS health and social care data held by NHS Digital. Designed to support research in diseases and conditions affecting the population, the NHS Digital SDE will help to support the development of new treatments and the analysis of how health and care is delivered to continually improve it.

A collaborative platform for approved researchers

The national SDE platform delivers an improved experience for users by introducing a virtual desktop that hosts powerful analysis and interrogation tools such as:

  • Databricks - a collaborative analytics platform that supports SQL and Python languages for the analysis of big data in the cloud
  • Rstudio - a data analysis tool for R, a programming language for statistical computing and graphics

Gitlab, the code management and code version control tool, is also integrated with the national SDE and provides users with a secure, cloud-based repository to store and back-up versions of code when using Databricks and RStudio. It also allows approved users with the same data sharing agreement to work collaboratively with their colleagues in shared project folders.

It will enable more collaboration and reduce the time and cost of research – with the ultimate aim of improving and saving lives

Rolling out the National Secure Data Environment

Last year, we gave access to the national SDE platform to a small number of researchers from the British Heart Foundation Data Science Centre who already use the existing TRE service. Their feedback and insights during this phase helped us improve the visual display of data, the capabilities of the platform and the support requirements.

We have now started to migrate all our TRE service customers over to the national SDE platform and we aim to complete this process by April 2023. During migration we will capture feedback and continue to improve the performance and features of the platform, as well as the overarching national SDE service, to better support current and future SDE customers.

Looking to the future

We’ve taken a significant first step on our journey to deliver a more robust, flexible and scalable end-to-end service for researchers, analysts and planners across the health and care ecosystem in the UK.

The national Secure Data Environment, with data security as its focus, will reduce the need for other similar national environments to be created elsewhere in the system. It will also enable more collaboration amongst the research community and reduce the time and cost of research – with the ultimate aim of improving and saving lives.

Whilst our primary focus for the first quarter of 2023 is to migrate all existing TRE customers to the national SDE, we are accepting expressions of interest from those organisations that wish to find out more about the service or access the Secure Data Environment.

Stay up-to-date

Please visit the NHS Digital Secure Data Environment page for further information and sign up to receive email updates for the research and data community.

Related subjects

NHS Digital’s director of research and clinical trials, Michael Chapman, looks at the organisation’s development of a trusted research environment (TRE) in the NHS.
A new approach to supporting clinical trials helped researchers develop some of the most vital COVID-19 treatments - and is making it easier to quickly and safely test new medicines.


Last edited: 2 October 2023 12:16 pm