Scotland uniquely placed for epidemiological/population surveillance studies

By stewartb

A better awareness of our country’s ‘assets’ in scientific research and innovation is important for its own sake. It also helps counter patterns of corporate media and BBC reporting in Scotland on the Coronavirus emergency: (a) recently an over-emphasis on the ‘expertise’ of one retired professor; and too commonly (b) bias by omission in favour of profiling research happening somewhere else.

Scotland’s electronic health records – a valued asset

NHS Research Scotland (NRS) claims that Scotland has “Strong infrastructure and world-class clinical and academic expertise ..”. In particular, NRS points to notable advantages in Scotland relative to other countries:

“Some of the best health data in the world with an informatics capability that exploits electronic patient records, linkable through a unique NHS patient identifier, enabling clinical trials, stratified medicine and genetic studies.”

Scotland is widely acknowledged as having one of the most highly developed health informatics systems and a long tradition of using linked health service data for research including:

  • evaluating interventions to deliver patient benefit
    • measuring long-term outcomes in clinical trials
    • assessing the safety of new medical interventions
    • supporting understanding of patterns of health and illness across the whole population.


Context – importance of ‘health informatics’

According to experts at the University of Edinburgh: ’Healthcare is becoming increasingly data intensive. Huge privacy-protected data sets can be created by curating: patient and other population based data; real-time information from sensors including wearable devices; data about the environment; social data collected by government administrations and also data from the sequencing of genomes.’

Health informatics’ – the expert analysis of privacy-protected medical and population data powered by high performance computer systems …’

Scottish uniqueness’ in health data contributes to Covid-19 response

An epidemiological/population surveillance study that uses patient data to track the progress of the Covid-19 pandemic in near real time across Scotland has been launched with £500,000 of funding from the Medical Research Council. It is led by researchers at the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute in collaboration with the University of Strathclyde, Health Protection Scotland, the West of Scotland Specialist Virology Centre (Glasgow Royal Infirmary) and University of Aberdeen – and endorsed by the Scottish Government.


Using anonymised electronic health records (including GP and hospital visits and test results) from 1.2 million people in Scotland, the study will track the progress of the COVID-19 epidemic. It will also process blood samples and swabs of the virus taken from a sub-sample of the participants in the population, to determine who has been exposed and to sequence the virus genomes. When vaccines or anti-viral therapies become available, their effectiveness will be monitored.

The researchers claim that: “Scotland is uniquely placed to allow this type of research due to the rich dataset generated via the Community Health Index (CHI) number – a distinctive identifier assigned to each person in Scotland registered with the NHS.”

Data driven research – a centre of global excellence

The University of Edinburgh is a global centre of excellence in ‘informatics’. Its School of Informatics is acknowledged both as one of the largest of its kind in Europe and among the top five world-leading centres in the field. The area of ‘health informatics’ is but one of many strands of research in informatics underway in Edinburgh.

Recently, as part of the Edinburgh and South-East Scotland City Region Deal funded by Scottish and UK governments, the University is participating in the Data Driven Innovation (DDI) Programme which has the aim to make the City of Edinburgh the ‘Data Capital of Europe’.


Earlier in 2020, as part of this DDI Programme, the University of Edinburgh announced a £20m,  seven-year partnership with Legal & General to establish the Advanced Care Research Centre (ACRC) aimed at improved understanding of care in later life and to revolutionise how it is delivered. The first of its kind in the UK, this multidisciplinary Centre will focus on “data-driven, personalised and affordable care that delivers independence, dignity and a high quality of life for people living in their own homes or in supported care environments”.