The practical ethics of repurposing health data: how to acknowledge invisible data work and the need for prioritization

Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 26 (1):119-132 (2023)
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Abstract

Throughout the Global North, policymakers invest in large-scale integration of health-data infrastructures to facilitate the reuse of clinical data for administration, research, and innovation. Debates about the ethical implications of data repurposing have focused extensively on issues of patient autonomy and privacy. We suggest that it is time to scrutinize also how the everyday work of healthcare staff is affected by political ambitions of data reuse for an increasing number of purposes, and how different purposes are prioritized. Our analysis builds on ethnographic studies within the Danish healthcare system, which is internationally known for its high degree of digitalization and well-connected data infrastructures. Although data repurposing ought to be relatively seamless in this context, we demonstrate how it involves costs and trade-offs for those who produce and use health data. Even when IT systems and automation strategies are introduced to enhance efficiency and reduce data work, they can end up generating new forms of data work and fragmentation of clinically relevant information. We identify five types of data work related to the production, completion, validation, sorting, and recontextualization of health data. Each of these requires medical expertise and clinical resources. We propose that the implications for these forms of data work should be considered early in the planning stages of initiatives for large-scale data sharing and reuse, such as the European Health Data Space. We believe that political awareness of clinical costs and trade-offs related to such data work can provide better and more informed decisions about data repurposing.

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Sara-Lee Green
Lund University

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