The NHS Research Secure Data Environment (SDE) Network was established earlier this year and aims to ensure secure access across England to healthcare data for approved research projects led by academics, industry organisations or NHS employees such as clinical researchers.

Supporting researchers

As the name suggests, key to its success will be its ability to provide approved researchers with the access they need to data that is stored in a network of secure environments. The network approach is crucial because it means rapid access to the most relevant data for local research, as well as building the connections that give access to data on a much larger scale.

One of the fundamental challenges that the SDE teams must address is that although data is consistently stored securely, not all secure systems store ‘the same thing, in the same way, all the time’. This slows down and restricts research while data is processed and checked for consistency.

Adopting a common data model

The NHS Research SDE Network has therefore agreed to adopt the Observational Medical Outcomes Partnership (OMOP) – Common Data Model (CDM) which brings consistency to health data regardless of which SDE it is in.

This means there can be access through the network to data that may come from multiple sources but will be ready for use to answer questions that require data from different sources to be combined. For instance, researchers will be able to run analyses across multiple SDEs and get answers that are comparable and can be combined to give an enhanced evidence base.

This also helps maintain data security; researchers will be able to run the same query across multiple SDEs and will get answers without data ever having to move or leave its secure location, protecting patient privacy in line with the OpenSAFELY best practice.

Extending benefits

The OMOP CDM was originally designed to support the use of observational healthcare databases for studying the effects of medical products, but its benefits will also extend to data use relating to planning and population health management. Adoption of the OMOP CDM means the users of the NHS Research SDE Network do not have to repeat data mapping that has already taken place. Its adoption also simplifies Information Governance challenges and enhances data security.

Crucially, adopting the OMOP CDM will align the network with European and global markets where OMOP is already in use. This will make it easier for researchers to include UK data in studies using data from multiple countries, for instance in comparative studies.

Despite its wide-ranging benefits, adoption of the OMOP CDM will not solve every challenge for researchers wanting to access health data. It is most often used as a tool to create a common data model around a specific subject, such as a disease area. However, it is less suited to very detailed enquiries and the network members and wider research community will continue to develop their thinking about how best to enable these types of enquiry to take place.

Enabled by collaboration

Health Data Research UK (HDR UK), the UK Health Data Research Alliance and Genomics England are collaborating with NHS England and the NHS Research SDE Network. Information about OMOP mappings completed by HDR UK and Genomics England, as well as mappings that network members have already done, will be held in a shared repository to avoid duplication and inform decision-making about future data mapping. Genomics England and HDR UK are also involved in wider international initiatives, as partners in the European Health Data Evidence Network and OHDSI (Observational Health Data Sciences and Informatics) community.

Paola Quattroni, Head of Alliance Strategy & Engagement, HDR UK, says:

‘As we work towards enabling use of recognised data standards and the adoption of common data models across the Alliance and beyond, we warmly welcome the commitment of NHS England and the Secure Data Environment network to adopting the OMOP common data model for health data. We look forward to working together to enable better research through better data, building on the experience of partners such as Genomics England.’

To find out more about the NHS Research SDE Network please email

Dr Chris Russell is the Head of Delivery, Data for Research and Development at NHS England.