Principles and Best Practices for Trusted Research Environments

NHSX continues to bring together partners across the system to detail the role of Trusted Research Environments (TREs) in the health and care system. Today HDR UK have published their paper Principles and Practice for Trusted Research Environments which sets out an approach for a trustworthy ecosystem of data access for health research. In this blog post, Simon Madden (Director of Data Policy, NHSX) and Catherine Pollard (Director of Tech Policy, NHSX) offer their support and commitment to ongoing collaboration.

The opportunities for data driven innovation in health and care have never been greater. The increasing availability of high-quality linked data has facilitated the identification of new diagnostics and treatments, improvement to health services and development of digital health technologies. It has also been essential in the delivery of population health intelligence, which has been clearly demonstrated in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Department of Health and Social Care’s Data Strategy which sets the direction for the system’s use of data, outlines a more effective use of research and analysis of NHS data, to support health and wellbeing, (including public health and social care), innovative practice and service planning. The use of Secure Data Environments (such as Trusted Research Environments) for access to data is key to this, as they support the highest standards of information governance, transparency and security by removing the need for data to be physically shared between different users. Data remains within a secure environment, is analysed in situ and only by those whose credentials have been established by an accredited authority. They also bring real benefits for those with a legitimate need to access, link and analyse NHS data, by providing tools and compute resources for scaled analysis, as well as facilitating collaboration and federation. Strict controls on what code and tools can be brought into the environment, and what data or outputs may be extracted further enhance the security of these systems.

To ensure the effectiveness of data driven insights and technologies it is essential to be transparent on these developments and demonstrate trustworthiness and build confidence in the new systems. The more we use patient data, in an ever-widening range of applications, the more people naturally seek reassurances that their information is secure and cannot be exploited. Establishing Secure Data Environments as the default route through which NHS organisations provide access to their anonymised data for research and analysis can give the public this reassurance.

Setting up these Secure Data Environments requires partnership working by NHS organisations as data controllers, tech providers, policy experts from the voluntary and public sector, analysts and researchers, and the public. NHSX is leading this process in England, convening a range of experts, including patient and public voice advisors to harness insights and experience.

HDR UK’s thought-leadership and work to build an evidence base for Trusted Research Environments (TREs) is exemplified by the paper published today, which illustrates how safety is at the heart of the Secure Data Environment model and is critical to demonstrating trustworthiness to the public and professionals. This paper offers excellent insights, illustrating how TREs can operate effectively in the NHS, and is well-timed to feed into the outputs NHSX will deliver in the coming months as we work with HDR UK and other stakeholders, and set the policy on Secure Data Environments. In the new year, the final version of the Data Strategy will be published, setting out the key principles for their use, to be followed by a technical specification and an accreditation framework.

Secure Data Environments are the future, and to deliver on our commitments and to demonstrate trustworthiness to the public, it will be critical to work in partnership, and we thank HDR UK and colleagues across the UK Health Data Research Alliance for their extensive work and contributions.