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UMass Lowell, UMMS Launch Secure Health Data System

"The security policies on data transfer will be enforced with the emerging software defined networking technologies to ensure secure data paths from homes to the data centers."

By Elizabeth Snell

UMass Medical School (UMMS) and UMass Lowell researchers are collaborating to launch a secure health data system to help patients, researchers, and physicians better transport and store information.

Secure health data sharing essential aspect to patient privacy

The secure system is called Flexware, and is also designed to support sensitive data, according to a UMMS statement. Specifically, Flexware will help estimate the caloric intake of obese patients.

The National Science Foundation is funding the project with a $1 million grant.

"We are doing this research because people often have difficulty recording what they eat, the portion size and where they eat," Yunsheng Ma, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine, said in a statement. "Accurate estimation of dietary intake, especially caloric intake, is important for assessing the effectiveness of weight loss interventions."

Researchers will “create a network cyber infrastructure for biomedical information flexible co-scheduling middleware engine,” UMMS explained, which is part of the larger Network Cyberinfrastructure for Biomedical Informatics Innovation project.

"This project will have significant impacts on improving the quality of health care applications; providing clinical and scientific researchers with flexible and efficient network resource allocation for studying patient behavior; and training the next generation workforce in medical and engineering fields," said principal investigator Vinod Vokkarane, PhD, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Health data security has not been overlooked in the creation of the new system, according to researchers. For example, individuals could potentially be identified through photos and videos that will be shared over the network. Therefore, Flexware is being designed to “ensure the privacy of the participant in the study by blurring the human body in the image while he or she records food intake.”

"The security policies on data transfer will be enforced with the emerging software defined networking technologies to ensure secure data paths from homes to the data centers," said collaborator Yan Luo, PhD, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Maintaining secure health data is essential, especially as information is transferred from one location to the next.

However, healthcare privacy issues are often a top hindrance to health data sharing. As previously reported by HealthITSecurity.com, decision-making efforts could be affected by certain barriers, including privacy concerns.

Researchers led by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health found that the simultaneous effect of multiple interacting barriers has greatly complicated advances in public health data sharing.

Healthcare privacy was one area that researchers found could hinder the growth of data sharing. Overall, researchers categorized the barriers into technical, motivational, economic, political, legal and ethical issues.

“A clear distinction between data containing personal identifiers and fully anonymous data may not always be possible, leading to restrictive policies on all types of data due to privacy concerns,” researchers explained in a report. “Aggregated data without personal identifiers may not be sufficiently detailed for certain applications. Existing tools and standards for the de-identification of personal identifiers such as statistical data masking may not be known or available in many contexts.”

Health data sharing can have numerous benefits for patients, as the Centerstone Research Institute (CRI) explained to HealthITSecurity.com last year.

CRI published a paper with a collection of behavioral healthcare patient and practice data featuring nearly 500,000 patients and millions of unique records. The information is stored in the National Data Warehouse, which is a project for CRI’s Knowledge Network.

According to CRI Chief Operating Officer Russell Galyon, CRI has data covering the concepts of service activity diagnoses and has a good deal of prescription-related information.

“The data is actually transmitted into us in a reasonably de-identified format, and then we take a lot of security precautions in length, both in design, audit, as well as standard system security style.”

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