Data made available to research groups investigating everything from cancer clusters to the risk of living near to hazardous waste sites is often restricted, altered or aggregated in order to protect the identity of individual patients.
But researchers say that these measures often make it impossible for them to carry out accurate geographical analyses of public health concerns, and may even result in misleading information being used in healthcare decisions.
They suggest that new technology which uses software "agents" to explore data could provide healthcare professionals with more accurate and meaningful information without risking patients' identities being revealed.
Agents are advanced software programmes that can be set a specific task but then given the autonomy to set goals and carry out the operations necessary to achieve them.
By constructing virtual institutions in which agents can act, collaborating organisations can make raw data available for research without compromising the security of the information.
"It is becoming increasingly clear that certain measures to protect individual privacy can destroy the information needed for geographical analyses, making it impossible to address many important public health concerns," said Dr Maged Boulos, from the School for Health at the University of Bath.
"Some of the solutions used to preserve confidentiality, such as centralising information to a single point in a town or aggregating data to cover the whole of an area, either lack the flexibility healthcare researchers need to get the information they need, or else actually obscure the results.
"This degrades the ability of public health researchers to ident
Source:University of Bath