Studying the impact of environments on child health by linking big data

20 Jun 2024, 8 a.m.

child on a slide that looks like a rainbow and says 'Clean Air Day'

At GOSH we know that we're not caring for children if we're not caring for the environment. We spoke to Professor Pia Hardelid, Deputy Lead for the NIHR BRC Applied Child Health Informatics theme, who told us about a project which is linking data from organisations like hospitals and schools, to help us understand the impacts of local environments on children’s health.

In 2020 we announced our Above and Beyond Strategy, including six clear principles that would guide our planning, decision making and day-to-day work. One of these principles is ‘going above and beyond for the environment’. In 2021 GOSH became the first London hospital to declare a Climate and Health Emergency, and set out the aim of becoming net zero carbon organisation.

We spoke to Professor Pia Hardelid, who was recently awarded a Professorship in Epidemiology at UCL GOS ICH and is the Deputy Lead for the NIHR GOSH Biomedical Research Centre, Applied Child Health Informatics Theme. Prof Hardelid’s research mainly focuses on linking up administrative data that is already being collected, for example from hospitals and schools, to improve our understanding of respiratory conditions in children, and how physical environments impact child health.

What we know about environments and child health and education

We know that children’s health and education are impacted by the environments in which they live, where they play and where they go to school. For example, children who live, play and go to school in areas with a lot of air pollution are unwell much more often.

We also know that children are much more vulnerable to the health damaging effects of their environments than adults. Even though we know lots about how environments impact children's health, there are still a lot of things that we don't know. For example, we don't know if children who live close to parks have a lower risk of getting coughs, or how climate change will affect children’s physical and mental health.

Data linkage

To answer questions like these, researchers need to collect lots of information from different organisations like hospitals, schools, registry offices and pharmacies and combine these data with information about local environments. This process is known as data linkage.

Digital illustrations showing environmental exposures in childhood and some of the health & learning outcomes that they are linked to

The Kids’ Environment & Health Cohort

To improve our understanding of the impact of local environments on child health, Prof Hardelid and her team from UCL Institute of Child Health, together with partner universities and the Office for National Statistics, set up the The Kids’ Environment & Health Cohort.

The Kids’ Environment & Health Cohort will link birth and death registration, health, educational and census data from children in England to environmental data. Data for all children born in England in and after 2006 will be included in this large national data resource. It's important to combine data for a lot of children and researchers may want to look at certain environmental risks that not many children are exposed to, or health problems that are less common, such as birth defects. It’s the first time that data on the health and education of children in England are being linked to environmental data at a national level.

The Kids’ Environment & Health Cohort will allow researchers to study the impacts of environments in and around kids’ schools and homes, on their health and how well they do at school. Researchers will be able to use the data from The Kids’ Environment & Health Cohort to help find out how changing the local environment can best prevent health problems or educational difficulties commonly faced by children. In turn the research should also help policy makers know what they can do to give children the best chance of growing into healthy thriving adults.

“The Kids’ Environment and Health Cohort will contain data from all children born in England since 2006, which is over 10 million children. This means that it will be possible to study how, for example, climate change will impact children with rare or complex conditions, and what we can do to support their health in a changing environment, via better services, support or planning.”

– Professor Pia Hardelid, Professor of Epidemiology at UCL GOS ICH, Deputy Lead for the NIHR GOSH Biomedical Research Centre ‘Applied Child Health Informatics’ Theme and Principal Investigator for the Kids’ Environment & Health Cohort.

Photo of Pia Hardelid in blue jeans and red rain jacket, stood infront of two green banners with the Kids environment and health cohort logo and information

Professor Pia Hardelid, Professor of Epidemiology at UCL GOS ICH, Deputy Lead for the NIHR GOSH Biomedical Research Centre ‘Applied Child Health Informatics’ Theme and Principal Investigator for the Kids’ Environment & Health Cohort

Keeping children's data safe

All the data in The Kids’ Environment & Health Cohort will be linked using well tested and secure methods, and de-identified – which means that no individual child can be recognised in the data. All data will be stored on secure servers and any graphs or tables published will be checked to ensure nobody can be identified. Researchers will only be allowed to use the data for projects that support children’s health and education through better environments.

The Kids’ Environment and Health Cohort project team

The Kids’ Environment and Health project is being led by University College London in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, City University, London School of Economics and Political Science, and Brock University. We work closely with the Office of National Statistics, Department of Education, and NHS England.

This project is funded by Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK), a partnership transforming the way researchers access the UK’s wealth of public sector data. ADR UK is an investment by the Economic and Social Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation. The Kids’ Environment and Health Cohort also has funding from Health Data Research UK, (Social and Environmental Determinants of Health Driver Programme); an initiative funded by UK Research and Innovation, Department of Health and Social Care (England) and the devolved administrations, and leading medical research charities.

About the NIHR GOSH Biomedical Research Centre Applied Child Health Informatics Theme

Patient and Public Involvement at the core of The Kids’ Environment & Health Cohort project

The GOSH Young Persons’ Advisory Group (YPAG) for research have had patient and public involvement in the project from the off-set as 27 members of the group met the research team as early as September 2022 to help choose the name and design a logo. One member of the YPAG also carried out work experience with the research team to help develop a communication strategy. The YPAG was also involved in March 2023 to co-develop the social media and public engagement plan for the project. Their input allowed the team to think through engagement approaches on how best to disseminate research findings across various social media platforms.

Three GOSH Parent and Carer Advisory Group (PCAG) representatives are members of the Kids' Environment Health Cohort Advisory Group to ensure findings are relevant to families, and the project team has met with PCAG twice during the design and set up of the research to discuss methods, data linkage, and also get feedback on the communication strategy.

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