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Balancing the Two

Enabled by the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers in the UK have been able to sift through the medical records of about 17 million people while safeguarding their privacy, the Economist reports.

While the researchers used this data to examine which populations — men, older people, and people of fewer means, as they report in a medRxiv preprint — might be more severely affected by COVID-19, the Economist writes that the method the University of Oxford's Ben Goldacre and his colleagues employed is also interesting. The approach, dubbed OpenSafely, did not remove or copy patients' electronic medical records for analysis, but instead examined them in place, logging each query the researchers sent. Sam Smith, who co-founded the privacy advocacy group MedConfidential, tells the Economist that this shows research and patient confidentiality don't have to be at odds.

The Economist adds that the researchers were only able to try this approach because of the wide latitude given to the National Health Service to study the pandemic, a situation it notes won't last. "But the OpenSafely team has shown that it is possible to get interesting results without copying data and without asking anyone to trust them with a large, sensitive dataset," it writes, adding that their approach may make it easier for other research teams in the future.