A SURE thing

Article published in Research Australia’s grassROOTS e-magazine.

Researchers are now able to securely access highly sensitive data from anywhere in Australia through SURE: the Secured Unified Research Environment, Australia’s first remote-access data research laboratory developed by the Sax Institute.

When Dr Anna Kemp started her research into the therapies used by Australian women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer four years ago, she had to pack her bags and relocate from Perth to Sydney in order to access crucial, secure Medicare data.

Dr Kemp, Research Fellow at the Centre for Health Services Research at the University of Western Australia, spent 16 months based at the Sax Institute in Sydney in order to access linked population data from the 45 and Up Study, Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and Medicare Benefits Schedule.

SURE provides more opportunities and scope for people working in regional universities to carry out great work
Dr Anna Kemp, researcher

The launch of SURE: the Secured Unified Research Environment, in 2012, meant Dr Kemp has since been able continue her research back in Perth, and more recently, from her new home on the NSW south coast.

SURE, developed by the Sax Institute and launched in 2012, is Australia’s first and only secure, high-powered computing environment that researchers can access remotely in order to analyse the large volumes of sensitive data contained in registries, cohorts, routinely collected administrative data and the linkages between them.

To date, 130 researchers have made use of SURE, and there are now 40 research projects underway using the network with another 20 project applications pending.

Dr Kemp and fellow researchers from the universities of South Australia, Sydney and Notre Dame are using the SURE facility to continue their analysis of de-identified hospital, cancer registry, medication and Medicare records of 1500 Australian women with newly diagnosed breast cancer participating in the 45 and Up Study.

“What is so exciting about SURE is that really important, sensitive health records can now be securely accessed by researchers from all over the country, and this provides more opportunities and scope for people working in regional universities to carry out great work,” Dr Kemp says.

She says other secure data models that were under consideration before SURE was established would have seen researchers having to travel to secure sites in capital cities to access data, or perhaps having to submit requests for data analysis rather than being able to access the datasets and undertake their own analyses.

“There are so many stages of analysis, it would have been unworkable to have data like this,” she says.
She said the launch of SURE enabled her team to undertake the most comprehensive research to date into what actually happens to women with breast cancer in the Australian community, whereas previous studies had relied on self-reported data.

Published research

Three papers with important implications for future policy and clinical practice have already been published from the research project, including research that shows more than half of Australian women with breast cancer stop their hormone treatment within five years, despite strong evidence they should continue endocrine therapy for much longer to minimise the risk of cancer recurrence.

A further two papers are close to completion: one focusing on recurrence of cancer and the other looking at health service usage patterns among women who discontinue therapy earlier than recommended.

SURE manager Joanna Khoo says the SURE project aims to promote “Big Science” in health and social science research by boosting Australian researchers’ capacity to conduct large-scale, collaborative research projects that tackle major health and social issues.

Each accredited researcher is allocated a virtual computer, which runs entirely on hardware physically located and controlled by SURE. The researchers see a facsimile of the remote virtual computer screen on their local screen, eliminating the need for them to use their local computing environments, which may have technical and security limitations.

Because SURE can be accessed remotely by researchers from different institutions at different sites across Australia or even overseas, it offers the opportunity for collaboration on important, large-scale research projects in the national interest.

“The opportunity SURE presents is for researchers to collaborate and analyse data that was previously very hard to access,” Ms Khoo says.  “For researchers, the benefit is access to data, and for data custodians it allows access with better protection of data.”

Dr Kemp agrees: “I think SURE is securing the future of linked health research in this country,” she says. “It’s an absolute game changer.”

Find out more