NHS will use Covid experience to develop secure use of patient data

Policy paper details requirements for secure data environments offering research access to health and social care records

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The NHS in England will build on a pilot-stage service used to access health and social care data on Covid-19 to develop secure data environments for research and planning.
NHS Digital’s Trusted Research Environment already supports more than 100 users, including the British Heart Foundation researching the pandemic’s impact on and cardiovascular diseases and an innovation hub founded by Health Data Research UK looking at the impact of Covid-19 on those with cancer.

This work will be expanded with the aim that all nationally-held data used for research and planning will be managed through a secure data environment, according to a policy paper published by the Department of Health and Social Care. Such environments, which give authorised users the ability to analyse data without full access to the data, are seen as a way to allow effective research while protecting privacy. NHS England has also set up regional secure data environments in London, Wessex (covering Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, southern Wiltshire and Dorset), Greater Manchester and the Thames Valley. 

The paper includes guidelines for the use of secure data environments, including that they will become the default way to access health and social care data for research and analysis with exceptions requiring significant justifications such as explicit consent from participants. The environments must also meet defined criteria, maintain high levels of cyber security and be accessible only by appropriate and verified users.

It also says that all use must be “ethical, for the public good, and comply with all existing law” and intended for health or health promotion with marketing or insurance purposes ruled out. The department plans to publish technical guidance for secure data environments by the end of 2022.


Sam Trendall

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