In this month’s review of published papers and pre-prints on COVID-19, the Early Career Committee considered dozens of articles made open access this month. They were ranked against core pillars of the HDR UK ethos: research quality, team science, scale, open science, patient and public involvement, and equality, diversity and inclusion. This month’s winning publication was Linked electronic health records for research on a nationwide cohort of more than 54 million people in England: data resource co-authored by HDR UK members Angela Wood, Rachel Denholm, Jennifer Cooper, Ashley Akbari, Jonathon Sterne and Cathie Sudlow.
Whilst not only enabling the more efficient collection and sharing of personal healthcare information, the increasing usage of electronic healthcare records (EHRs) in medicine creates potentially very rich data sources for the analysis of population-level health insights. EHRs have been used for some time in the primary care setting and now increasingly in secondary care also. Despite this, EHR systems in different settings are frequently disparate, limiting their usefulness in the setting of biomedical research. To realise the potential of EHRs for data analysis, researchers have been attempting to increase the linkages of datasets, with the SAIL databank a notable example in Wales.
In this paper, Wood et al describe the first national linked healthcare data resource across England. Utilising the newly established NHS Digital Trusted Research Environment (TRE), datasets including covid-19 laboratory tests, GP records, information about hospital admissions and specialist datasets with information on heart disease and strokes were linked. The resource contained general practice records from over 96% of the population in England, and through linking covid-19 laboratory data to information from GPs and hospital admissions allowed about 20% more cases of covid-19 to be detected than otherwise would have.
One of the key strengths of this study was the large numbers of people included in it to allow detection of rare but clinically important outcomes, such as deaths amongst young people from COVID-19, along with the secure way that researchers can access the data for analysis whilst protecting the privacy of patients. The Early Career Researcher Committee were particularly impressed by the scale of the project, especially the inclusion of almost the entirety of the population of England, and the involvement of patients and the public in the design and conduct of the study. With cooperation from researchers from a variety of prestigious institutions it reflected a good example of team science. This exciting publication highlights the potential that increasing linkages of EHRs holds and paves the way for similar research into different conditions.
HDR UK’s Early Career Committee would like to congratulate and commend this team for their contribution to HDR UK’s vision of uniting the UK’s health data to enable discoveries that improve people’s lives.