The use of supermarket loyalty cards and mobile phone apps tracking diet or exercise are increasingly pervasive. Not only do they provide a useful service for the user but they also gather information about the habits of individuals. What if all that data could also be used to feed into public health research that could improve the overall health of the community?

LIDA’s LifeInfo survey, led by Dr Michelle Morris, surveyed 10,000 people about the types of loyalty card or apps they use, and their thoughts on allowing health researchers to access this information and link it with their health records, in the future.

If people are open to sharing their data, the project could be the first step in a much longer-term programme looking at how the records might be used in public health research.

“In this first phase, we really want to find out what concerns people might have about how their personal information is used,” says Dr Morris.

“Researchers need to have insight into what’s available, but also how they need to work with people to alleviate concerns and build trust around how the information will be used.”

The ultimate aim is to build a research tool that can cross-reference thousands of lifestyle and health records to uncover links and patterns. This could help researchers and healthcare professionals to develop interventions and treatments for conditions such as diabetes, obesity or cancer. Data would be anonymised and stored in a secure research environment so that there is no risk of identification of individuals.

“We think there’s huge potential here to uncover some really useful insights,” explains Dr Morris. “Supermarkets gather this data for marketing purposes, to increase sales – why aren’t we also using it to help improve people’s health too?

“If we can look in detail at the differences in lifestyle between people who have a serious health condition such as diabetes, and those who don’t, we might be able to uncover new patterns that could help us treat or prevent these conditions.”

Existing large surveys, such as the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, already collect some valuable information, with around 9,000 responses gathered over the past nine years. But gathering this information is labour intensive for participants and there will be errors with people not remembering, or choosing to give inaccurate answers.

“The type of information we might get from people’s shopping trips, or from their apps will also have limitations,” says Dr Morris. “But the information has already been collected and is not subject to someone remembering what they ate or how far they walked – it’s potentially a hugely valuable resource if people are open to donating the information.”

The team is working in partnership with Leeds Teaching Hospitals. Adam Glaser, Professor of Paediatric Oncology and Late Effects at the University of Leeds, and Consultant Paediatric Oncologist and Late Effects physician at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, is a co-lead researcher on the project. He says: “Gaining these precise and detailed insights would give us a much clearer picture of how lifestyle affects health.

“One clear example of where this might benefit paediatric medicine is in premature birth where there are many health risks. We don’t always know why some babies are born early, but there may be clues in the diet and physical activity patterns of the mother. Defining these patterns is the first step in identifying guidance or interventions that could improve the health of expectant mothers and babies.”