Researchers develop secure protocol for linking data registries

Researchers studying the effectiveness of HPV vaccinations have developed a practical and secure protocol for linking data registries from different organizations, according to a study published this week in the peer-reviewed science journal PLoS ONE. The protocol, which allows for continuous monitoring of vaccine effectiveness, can be applied for examination of other similar efforts, including disease surveillance.

The researchers, based at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute in Canada, used cryptographic techniques that enable exact matching of records between different registries via identifiers like health card numbers or birth dates, while maintaining privacy. The computation time for scanning through records for as many as 100,000 patients was at worst, just under 4 hours and at best, slightly less than 3 hours.

The protocol could be used by U.S. researchers, as well, according to the study's authors, although "special considerations" would need to be taken. For example, because a hash function is used to distinguish and match different pieces of data, it always is derived from identifiable information and therefore considered personal health information. Under the Safe Harbor standard, all identifiable characteristics must be removed from a data set before it can be used.

To that end, the protocol would be allowed only if the disclosed information contained coded information like a Limited Data Set, which calls for a data sharing agreement with the data recipient that the information be used only for research, public health or healthcare operations.

"Access to data to perform such surveillance is often challenging because of legitimate privacy concerns," said Khaled El-Emam, Canada research chair and senior investigator at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, in a statement. "Our protocol addresses these concerns directly and facilitates rapid data sharing."

In similar news, researchers at the University of Minnesota recently developed clinical decision support technology that helps providers to coordinate care delivery and research activities across clinics.

"This solution takes information out of an electronic health record and reorganizes it to make it easier for a provider to use," Kevin Peterson, a U of M professor who invented the software, said in a statement. "The system standardizes information from EHRs, making it much easier to work with and to share between providers."

To learn more:
- read the PLoS ONE study
- here's the related announcement
- here's the U of M announcement

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