Increasing numbers of university hospitals in Germany are using shared IT systems for biomedical research. Greifswald university hospital, where the servers for two multicentre studies are located, is a key site.

At Greifswald last week, the heads of information technology for 24 German university hospitals gathered for the ALKRZ conference, a meeting that takes place twice a year to provide an update on the health IT projects of the different university hospitals.

Among the topics discussed was a new proof of concept installation of service oriented architecture (SOA). It is currently implemented in the department of anaesthesiology of the hospital ‘Klinikum rechts der Isar’ in Munich. “The aim is to bring together the different information systems of the department so that the user does not have to switch between the different solutions any more”, said the hospital’s head of IT, Udo Poth.

At present SOA is not very common in German hospitals meaning the Munich experiment will be carefully monitored and watched. The solution employed is IBM’s WebSphere. As well as the SOA system, Munich will continue to use SAP as a business software. “But with WebSphere, it will not be the leading system any more”, said Poth.

Digital speech recognition and data warehouses were also ardently debated in Greifswald. However, the biggest topic of the ALKRZ meeting was the opening of university data centres for digital multicentre research projects. The University of Greifswald is leading the way with two research endeavours that involve abundant cross-institutional data transfer.

The first one is the SHIP study, a ten year population based prospective epidemiological study, taking place in the region of Vorpommern, a sparsely populated area on the Baltic shore around Greifswald. The study will collect nearly 40 terabytes of clinical, genetic and MRI data of around 5000 volunteers. The study is already underway and half complete, “Already now, the data is used for around 240 different research projects in institutions worldwide”, said Wolfgang Hoffmann, head of the Institute of Community Medicine (ICM) at Greifswald.

The second study, the EU funded transregio network on inflammatory cardiomyopathies, is smaller, but even more demanding from a privacy point of view: it involves the electronic distribution of different biomaterials in combination with pseudonymized patient data to a variety of research groups.

“We have now finished the data management concept for this project so that research can start”, said Hoffmann, “it is agreed on by the relevant data protection officials.” Details of the concept will be published in a forthcoming edition of the journal ‘Computer Methods and Programs in Biomedicine’.

The Telematic Platform of Medical Research Networks (TMF), a national organisation that deals with IT infrastructure for medical research in Germany, is also working on blueprint solutions with a high privacy standard for research networks.

For example, TMF is trying to establish tools and services for the generation and administration of pseudonyms that could be used by multi-centre studies. “Having preformed tools that are agreed on by data protection officials makes multi-centre clinical research easier and quicker to realise”, said TMF-researcher Johannes Drepper.

The TMF does not want work alone and is considering cooperation with university data centres which could, for example, provide data hosting or offer third party services. Consequently, the Greifswald meeting ended with the decision to implement a joint mailing list in order to bring state funded research and university data centres closer together in the future.