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Using GP Data in Research: A Meeting of Stakeholders

In summer 2023, Dr Emily Ball and her colleagues held a workshop with key stakeholders to discuss the possible benefits and challenges of using GP data in research. In this blog, Dr Emily Ball shares the outcomes of the workshop, which was supported by last year's EMH ECR Seed Funding Scheme.


I am Emily Ball and I am a Research Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh. My research aims to identify risk factors for depression across the life course. To address my research questions, I work with routinely collected electronic health records in Scotland.

What is the challenge of using electronic health records to study depression?

To identify cases of depression in electronic health records, I use data collected when someone is admitted to hospital, and data about prescribed medications. However, mental health problems such as depression are often diagnosed by a General Practitioner. Currently, in Scotland, national GP data are not readily available to use in population health research. This may mean that certain cases of depression are missed, for example, people who are not treated in hospital, and people who are not prescribed pharmacological treatment for depression. There are also challenges to using data about prescribed medications, for example, has someone been prescribed antidepressants for depression, or are they being used to treat a different condition. To help overcome these challenges, we need to combine health data sources to accurately identify health conditions.

Why did we apply for Edinburgh Mental Health Seed Funding?

Facilitating access to GP data would be helpful to many researchers studying conditions often managed in primary care (e.g., mental health, women’s health) at a national level. The infrastructure for securely sharing routinely collected health data is in place but there are barriers to sharing GP data. To try and overcome these barriers we applied to the Edinburgh Mental Health Seed Funding Scheme to organise a knowledge exchange workshop. The aim of this workshop was to bring together key stakeholders including GPs, researchers, members of the public, and data holders.

What were the aims of the workshop?

The aims of the workshop were to:

  • Understand the benefits of using GP data in population health research

  • Discuss the potential challenges of incorporating GP data in population health research

  • Understand what infrastructure needs to be in place to include national GP data in research

  • Explore how to overcome barriers of using GP data in population health research

Who attended the workshop?

The workshop took place on 20th July 2023 at the University of Edinburgh. 23 people attended the in-person meeting, including GPs, researchers, members of the public, ethics committee members, and data holders.

We had an afternoon of insightful discussions between attendees. The workshop started with presentations from Blair Smith (Chair in Population Health Science, University of Dundee) and David Henderson (Quantitative Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh) who provided an overview of how they have used primary care data in their research. Next, Peter Cairns (GP & Clinical Advisor NHS Lothian) gave us an insight into what primary care data looks like and where it comes from. In our third presentation, Diane Rennie (Public Health Scotland) described how Public Health Scotland supports research and provided an update on the progress being made with the proposed National Data Platform. In the last session, Atul Anand (DataLoch Clinical Lead) and Stuart Dunbar (DataLoch Engagement Manager) outlined research opportunities with DataLoch, and led a discussion where they explored the potential for a future mental health database developed collaboratively with mental health experts.

Outcomes of the meeting:

To disseminate our findings, we wanted to visually summarise the outcomes of the workshop. We worked with Lana from Cloud Chamber Studios who created the below infographic:


To conclude, facilitating access to primary care data for research, offers huge potential for studying conditions managed in primary care, such as mental health, at a population-level. Working in a multidisciplinary team of researchers, healthcare professionals, and patients is needed to ensure that research aligns with clinical priorities.


Dr Emily Ball led 'Using GP Data in Research: A Meeting of Stakeholders', in collaboration with Dr Mark Adams, Professor Heather Whalley and Dr Matthew Iveson, whose research is supported by the Wellcome Trust and DATAMIND. 


Dr Emily Ball is a Research Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry, Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences. She is particularly interested in using electronic health records to study ageing and mental health. Her current research uses electronic health records to identify risk factors for depression across the life course.


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