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Secure access to health data improved to aid coronavirus research

Researchers working on projects related to COVID-19 are benefitting from a new service for studying vital health data quickly and securely.

Researchers working on projects related to COVID-19 are benefiting from a new service for studying vital health data quickly and securely.

The Trusted Research Environment (TRE) Service for England provides researchers with access to permitted health data for analysis and research via a remote, secure, analytical platform within the NHS. It aims to speed up the pace of research which is vital to the UK’s COVID-19 response.

Datasets and analytical tools within the TRE improve the potential to make new discoveries through research. The service also aims to reduce issues researchers have faced in the past with accessing data promptly and in consistent formats.

The service incorporates the 5 Safe’s Framework1 within the governance process to ensure that researchers have access to the data they need while protecting people’s privacy.

Benefits of the TRE service include:

  • Streamlined access to health data sets in a secure environment for research
  • Ability to link different data sets for research to inform the treatment and care of patients and wider health care policy
  • Remote access by researchers to data in the TRE with the ability to collaborate with other organisations which is essential for responding to COVID-19
  • Access and analysis stays in the NHS Digital TRE, ensuring the security, confidentiality, ethical use, and governance of health data
  • Access is only provided to trained and vetted researchers

The first client to use the service, the BHF Data Science Centre2, led by Health Data Research UK3 (HDR UK) has created a research environment offering access to routinely collected COVID-related health data to a team of researchers from UK universities and other research organisations.

This team is currently researching the effects of cardiovascular diseases on patient outcomes and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on diagnosis, management and outcomes of cardiovascular diseases.

Professor Cathie Sudlow, Director of the BHF Data Science Centre, said: “One of the frustrations researchers traditionally face is accessing the data they need in the formats they need it in, prolonging the development of new scientific discoveries. The Trusted Research Environment is a response to that problem, allowing researchers to access high quality datasets and analytical tools and to collaborate with each other in the search for answers to complex problems like COVID-19.”

Brian Roberts, Head of the TRE for England at NHS Digital, said: “COVID-19 has generated an influx of research projects coming into NHS Digital. These requests are to either use our data or link it to answer data questions that aim guide national decision making, look at potential interventions and reduce the severity of outcomes.

“We want to provide rapid, safe and trustworthy access to essential health and care data for timely research at scale. It’s a key part of NHS Digital’s strategic vision and gives our customers prompt and safe access to data alongside our existing data dissemination services.

“The TRE is evolving and our partnership with HDR UK will allow us to provide an adaptable service that supports all our users’ needs in a safe and secure way.”


Notes for editors

    1. The ‘5 Safe’s Framework’ is the cornerstone of data governance. It’s used by a range of safe data labs across the UK  and ensures that researchers have the right credentials and training [safe people], that they are working on safe projects and with safe data; all in a safe setting where only safe [research] outputs ever leave. This greatly reduces the risk of sensitive data being used incorrectly.
    2. The British Heart Foundation (BHF) Data Science Centre’s vision is to improve the public’s cardiovascular health through the power of large-scale data and advanced analytics across the UK. The centre works in partnership with patients, the public, NHS, researchers and clinicians to facilitate better, faster, more efficient, cost-effective, ethical, safe and scientifically robust data-driven research and innovation into the causes, prevention and treatment of all diseases of the heart and circulation (including, for example, heart attacks, heart failure, heart rhythm disorders, stroke, peripheral vascular disease and vascular dementia). Funded by the BHF for an initial £10M over 5 years and embedded within Health Data Research UK (HDR UK), the centre will provide the leadership, co-ordination, and engagement needed to deliver this vision, through building capability, capacity and infrastructure to drive excellence in data-enabled cardiovascular research. Its work will be underpinned by the Health Data Research Innovation Gateway,  which upholds the highest levels of information governance, protecting the privacy and security of patients’ data, and benefits from alignment with Health Data Research UK’s existing network of experts, including Health Data Research Hubs, and the wider cardiovascular research community. The centre is working with relevant data controllers through the UK Health Data Research Alliance, to provide knowledge and expertise to help researchers from the NHS, academia and industry find, access, understand, connect and analyse the UK’s unique cardiovascular ‘big data’ that is distributed across national registries, NHS electronic medical records and other relevant datasets. The ultimate aim of the centre is to enable responsible, ethical research that combines the power of advanced analytic methods with the UK’s large-scale and diverse cardiovascular data. High impact outputs will help to shape better cardiovascular health services, provide patients and health professionals with the tools to make better decisions, and bring the latest medical discoveries to patients across the UK faster than ever before. To find out more about the BHF Data Science Centre’s activities and the trusted research environment we have created with NHS Digital, please email [email protected]
    3. Health Data Research UK (HDR UK) is the national institute for health data science. Its mission is to unite the UK’s health data to enable discoveries that improve people’s lives. It is funded by UK Research and Innovation, the Department of Health and Social Care in England and equivalents in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and leading medical research charities. HDR UK was set up in 2018 to support research on health data at scale to advance its understanding of disease and enable new discoveries that will ultimately improve health and care.  It has established national research programmes that use data at scale and is building an infrastructure to enable the responsible access and analysis of this data.  This work is structured around three key themes:  
    • Uniting health data – which includes the UK Health Data Research Alliance and the Health Data Research Innovation Gateway
    • Improving health data – which includes tools, methods, Health Data Research Hubs and the BHF Data Science Centre 
    • Using health data – which includes research discoveries and skills development across four national priority areas: Understanding the Causes of Disease, Clinical Trials, Public Health and Better Care.

    It is delivering this strategy through its inclusive, team-oriented One Institute ethos - bringing together NHS, universities, research institutes and charities - built on its own values.

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Last edited: 21 October 2021 8:33 am