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Secure data is a SURE thing


A data resource of aggregated health, social and environmental factors of more than 60,000 NSW residents is proving a rich resource for researchers, who are accessing the data to embark on a number of wide-ranging investigations.

The Sax Institute's purpose built virtual research laboratory, known as Secure Unified Research Environment (SURE), facilitates secure and remote access by researchers to sensitive information without having to store it in their own computing environments, benefiting researchers through increased study opportunities, while affording participants confidence in the way their data is being used.

Geoff MorganThe SURE facility was established with funding from the Population Health Research Network under part of NCRIS, and also supports researchers collaborating on large-scale health and social projects.

For example, three separate research teams are currently drawing on the Social, Economic and Environmental (SEEF) project, which is itself a sub-study of the Sax Institute's long-running 45 and Up population cohort study.

SEEF subjects complete a 78-item questionnaire, covering factors ranging from their attendance at medical practices to home ownership and sexuality. Their responses are then linked to routinely collected health information such as mortality or hospitalisation data, giving researchers detailed information about a wide variety of health and social issues.

Associate Professor Geoff Morgan, from the University of Sydney, is part of the SEEF Environment/Spatial Team drawing on the data to investigate the relationship between physical activity and the 'walkability' of neighbourhoods. The team is also conducting a study into air pollution and health.

"The SURE environment has the ability to host very cost effective cohort study information for people who are followed up over many years by linking the 45 and Up Study data with routinely collected health and environment data," said Professor Morgan.

His research team has been able to obtain data at a much higher spatial resolution than previously, making it possible to narrow down the impact of environmental factors like air pollution on health to much more precise areas – even residential addresses – while ensuring subjects' confidentiality.

"There are processes in place by which we can access that data and yet ensure it is secure and confidential," Professor Morgan says. "The residential data is not provided in a way in which it can be linked directly to an individual participant or their health data."

Morgan notes, "The detailed nature of the data also means findings will be more precise improving the overall validity of the research."

A second team, led by Professor Mark Harris from the Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity at the University of New South Wales is also accessing SEEF data, exploring the social, economic and environmental factors associated with preventive care.

A third study by the Australian National University is using SEEF and linked health data to try to untangle the relationship between mental health, antidepressant use and weight gain.

These three projects all demonstrate the value of high quality research facilities, says SURE's Program Manager Ms Jo Khoo. "Through providing a centralised, secure environment through which researchers can collaborate, SURE facilitates greater secondary use of data in research, as demonstrated by the SEEF project.

Image: Associate Professor Geoff Morgan (courtesy of Sax Institute, all rights reserved)