Navigating difficult decisions in medical care and research

Journal of Medical Ethics 46 (6):351-352 (2020)
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The articles in this issue explore a number of difficult choices in medical care and research. They investigate ethical complexity in a range of decisions faced by policymakers and clinicians, and offer new evidence or normative approaches for navigating this complexity. In this issue’s feature article, Ford and colleagues engage with an ethical challenge faced by policymakers in relation to health research: should free text data contained in medical records be shared for research purposes?1 While some types of data from electronic medical records are used widely in health research, privacy concerns have limited the use of free text data specifically. Ford and colleagues highlight the richness of the clinical information in free text and its centrality to some areas of healthcare such as mental health and primary care. In their view, while text analytic technology is developing rapidly, ‘policy makers routinely judge that the risk of re-identifying patients from text data is too high for these data uses’. Their citizens’ jury study in the UK found that participants were largely in favour of medical free text data being shared outside the NHS for research using an opt-out model: ‘the majority of jurors believed the benefits of sharing data for research outweighed the privacy risks’. In their commentary on this research, Largent and Morain raise some important issues about policymakers’ use of empirical findings …



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