NHS Digital has revealed that its cancer data will be securely available for researchers to investigate how people with COVID and cancer were affected during the pandemic.
Currently, studies on the impacts of people with COVID and cancer are sparse, with the short and long-term effects of the pandemic, such as waiting times, treatment, and overall health outcomes, currently unknown. Now, this latest development from NHS Digital will potentially help understand how the health services have been impacted for people with these diseases.
NHS Digital Data
DATA-CAN, the UK’s Health Data Research Hub for Cancer, has been collaborating with NHS Digital to provide efficient and secure access to cancer-specific data curated by NHS Digital’s National Disease Registration Service. The project also utilised national population datasets from the NHS Digital Trusted Research Environment (TRE).
A TRE is a safe space where healthcare experts and researchers can use the data required for approved projects. This de-identified data is examined in a secure environment without being downloaded to ensure a robust platform for research.
Investigating COVID and cancer
This novel partnership will enable health professionals to determine the outcomes of patients with COVID and cancer. Access to this data will help to illustrate how COVID affected the referral, diagnoses, treatment and outcomes of a range of cancers, helping to enhance healthcare systems in the future, developing new services, tests, and treatments that will save lives.
This endeavour has recently been supported by a substantial £200 million investment from the UK Government to advance secure and efficient access to NHS data through TREs and digital clinical trial services. This will allow the NHS to deliver new treatments more rapidly and improve patient care, eventually making the NHS Digital TRE available to a larger number of users.
Professor Geoff Hall, DATA-CAN’s clinical lead, professor of digital health and honorary consultant in medical oncology at the Leeds Cancer Centre, said: “As a cancer doctor with a specialist interest in health data research, utilising this national Trusted Research Environment allows us to better understand the impact that COVID-19 has had on NHS cancer services. The same data, used effectively and responsibly and with the support of patients and the public, has the potential to drive research into new, more effective ways to diagnose cancer early and could support the development of new treatments to improve people’s lives. It is a really exciting development and has the potential to be a real game-changer.”
Michael Chapman, NHS Digital Director of Research and Clinical Trials, said: “Safe access to data is absolutely vital in helping medical researchers explore the impact of COVID-19 on cancer services and outcomes, and more widely to understand the causes of cancer and how best to diagnose, prevent and treat it. NHS Digital is committed to making data accessible to researchers in a safe and trusted environment that safeguards patient data at the same time as allowing for world-class research.”
Professor Mark Lawler, Professor of Digital Health at Queen’s University Belfast, Scientific Director of DATA-CAN and Chair of the Scientific Steering Group of this new initiative, said: “This is a very exciting development as it allows us to produce precise scientific evidence of the continuing impact of COVID on cancer patients and cancer services. This cancer intelligence will empower us to address the cancer backlog that COVID has precipitated and build back both better and smarter in order to deliver the enhanced cancer services that our patients deserve.”
Alison Allam, DATA-CAN Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement Group, said: “Patients and carers understand the benefits of earlier and more accurate diagnosis and smarter, kinder treatments for cancer and the important role that health data research plays in this. However, we want to be reassured that our medical data will be treated confidentially and responsibly by those carrying out research. We, therefore, welcome the improved safety and reassurance from such data remaining within NHS Digital’s Trusted Research Environment, whilst still allowing access to approved researchers to help improve outcomes for patients.”