Patient consent preferences on sharing personal health information during the COVID-19 pandemic: “the more informed we are, the more likely we are to help”

BMC Medical Ethics 23 (1):1-15 (2022)
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Abstract

Background Rapid ethical access to personal health information to support research is extremely important during pandemics, yet little is known regarding patient preferences for consent during such crises. This follow-up study sought to ascertain whether there were differences in consent preferences between pre-pandemic times compared to during Wave 1 of the COVID-19 global pandemic, and to better understand the reasons behind these preferences. Methods A total of 183 patients in the pandemic cohort completed the survey via email, and responses were compared to the distinct pre-pandemic cohort ; all were patients of a large Canadian cancer center. The survey covered broad versus study-specific consent; opt-in versus opt-out contact approach; levels of comfort sharing with different recipients; perceptions of commercialization; and options to track use of information and be notified of results. Four focus groups were subsequently conducted to elucidate reasons motivating dominant preferences. Results Patients in the pandemic cohort were significantly more comfortable with sharing all information and biological samples, sharing information with the health care institution, sharing information with researchers at other hospitals, sharing PHI provincially, nationally and internationally compared to the pre-pandemic cohort. Discomfort with sharing information with commercial companies remained unchanged between the two cohorts. Significantly more pandemic cohort patients expressed a wish to track use of PHI, and to be notified of results. Thematic analysis uncovered that transparency was strongly desired on outside PHI use, particularly when commercialization was involved. Conclusions In pandemic times, patients were more comfortable sharing information with all parties, except with commercial entities, where levels of discomfort remained unchanged. Focus groups identified that the ability to track and receive results of studies using one’s PHI is an important way to reduce discomfort and increase trust. These findings meaningfully inform wider discussions on the use of personal health information for research during global crises.

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