DRE can benefit doctors as well as researchers

Up-to-date analytical software, high amounts of computing power, and secure access to other people’s data are the main reasons researcher Marieke van Rijn started using Azure DRE. She knows firsthand what the benefits of the digital workspaces are for researchers and has discovered that it can even benefit doctors.

PhD candidate Marieke van Rijn was one of the first researchers to use the Digital Research Environment: a secure, cloud-based workspace environment known as Azure DRE. For the past three years, she has been working at Radboudumc's Nephrology department on research regarding prediction modeling. Her research includes processing large datasets.

How to deal with large data sets?

She quickly stumbled upon two big problems when working on the medical center’s internal workspace. The first was that the software program she needed to analyze her data had not been updated in years. Due to extensive security checks by the IT department, it could take several months before she could get the updated version she needed. The second problem was that the internal hard drive did not have the computing power she needed to process the vast quantities of data.

Marieke was glad to discover that Azure DRE was available at Radboudumc. “It offered me a great solution for both my problems. Whereas the programs on the internal server are updated every few years, Azure DRE updates all its programs every month. Not only was I able to use the latest version I needed, it meant I would always be using the latest version without any effort on my part.”

“Then there’s the advantage of the computing power. As a Radboudumc researcher, you get to use the standard applications and capacity free of charge. But whenever I need more, I can temporarily up the compute capacity. I only pay the exact time I use it – so, pay per minute. What’s more, before upscaling, I can get an estimation of the costs. The dashboard also allows me to see how much I have already spent. That way, I can keep the costs in check. And an extra benefit for researchers applying for grants is that they also get an idea of the computing costs and can add these to the grant application.”

Using patient data securely

Being new when Marieke started using it, Azure DRE still had bugs and issues that needed to be worked out. "The great thing is that the program administrators react quickly whenever I report something. In my experience, they solve bugs within days, and they seriously consider any suggestions I offer.”

Together with fellow researchers at her department and data stewards, Marieke van Rijn has also developed a very different use of the Azure DRE: a practical one for the medical staff. Azure DRE can securely and quickly help analyze current patient data, giving clinicians a much better idea of their patient body as a whole.

"Thanks to Azure DRE, we as researchers can access EPIC data, Radboudumc’s electronic patient files. Data that you upload to DRE is automatically pseudonymized. That means that researchers at Radboudumc are now allowed to analyze it: something that was not possible before – or at least not in such a quick and easy way.

“I wrote an algorithm that analyzes the raw data of in-house patients of the Nephrology department that had a complication. Every week, doctors can get an update. Now they can quickly get an idea of, for example, how many of their patients got an infection or compare it to the same period last year.”

Creating a user-friendly dashboard and re-usable script

"It's a great spin-off of the use of Azure DRE. The doctors in our department are very enthusiastic about this application. Not all of them are very digital savvy, but they all find the dashboard user-friendly. The many data they are obligated to register about patients now have a much more direct purpose for them. Without analyzing it, recording data can feel to have little meaning. Before, analyzing this data took manual labor and was time-consuming. It did not happen regularly. This new tool helps them reflect on their care quicker.

“A real plus is that if needed, doctors are permitted to go back and track which patients stand out in the data. In other words, Azure DRE can take the pseudonymized data and trace it back to an EPIC id, and the doctor uses that to track down the patient. Important: Azure DRE only permits doctors to do this – not researchers – meaning it complies with GDPR.”

Marieke has written the script is such a way that different departments could re-use it for various purposes. For anyone interested - the Azure DRE team is open to any requests. She can see that Azure DRE has much more potential than its initial purpose: namely, helping researchers store, analyze, and share their data in a secure, user-friendly environment.

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