NHS digital transformation and development of the Yorkshire and Humber Subnational Secure Data Environment

Data Connect has been born out of a need to improve how quickly and efficiently researchers can access health data, as well as from more widespread changes that are occurring across a constantly evolving health data landscape.

Royal Hallamshire Hospital

While much of this change has been the result of technological advancement and digital innovation, such as improved data security methods  and emerging trends towards secure cloud platforms, the most notable shift occurred in response to the COVID pandemic. Driven by the need to rapidly access and analyse COVID related health data to fight the pandemic, it became clear that faster access to health data was not only possible, but highly beneficial in improving population health and driving health research and innovation.

Building on the gains made during the pandemic, the Government set out to “make the NHS the country’s most powerful driver of innovation” (Life Sciences Vision) with a pledge to invest in a research infrastructure to harness UK health and social care data to improve population health, plan and deliver health services better, and to address widespread national health inequalities. Their Data Saves Lives policy puts data at the heart of transforming health services, improving patient outcomes and saving lives by using data-driven evidence to support decision-making, empowering researchers by enabling access to the data they need, working with partners from across the health and social care landscape to develop innovations, and developing a secure data infrastructure that puts patient privacy at the centre. The government commissioned Goldacre review outlined how this could be achieved, providing 158 recommendations for ‘Trusted Research Environments’ where data could be securely stored and accessed for research purposes. 

The digital transformation of the NHS and subsequent decommissioning of NHS Digital, which delivered and maintained the NHS digital, data and technology systems, including data sharing services, has led to a fundamental change in how data can be used for research. Where previously NHS Digital would have ‘shared’ health data, now approved researchers must access the data via the NHS ‘Secure Data Environment’ (based on Goldacre’s ‘Trusted Research Environments’). In addition to this national ‘Secure Data Environment’, the NHS and the Department for Health and Social Care are investing in a network of Sub-national Secure Data Environments. 

The Yorkshire and Humber Sub-national Secure Data Environment will bring together NHS data from South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, and North Yorkshire and Humber. The data infrastructure will be provided by Bradford Teaching Hospitals, and will be accessible via the three associated research institutes, the University of Sheffield, Leeds University and the University of York. Data Connect will be the main point of access for researchers requesting access to South Yorkshire data and we are working closely with NHS partners across South Yorkshire to align with the region's data and governance requirements.