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Ethics and Public Health Surveillance


Due to the necessity, public health surveillance sometimes occurs without patients’ consent. Legally, the recording of name-based data in infectious disease reporting and other types of surveillance is enforced. Scientifically, the recording of the necessary data is essential in disease prevention and intervention. However, although health surveillance without the consent from patients is a violation of ethics, when thinking of the community, it is ethically justifiable (Lee, Heilig, & White, 2012). The overruling of individual’s autonomy or freedom must be supported by facts that it is for the improvement of the population’s health. Nevertheless, some may argue that despite the benefits, individuals’ autonomy must not be violated. This paper will evaluate ethical considerations and the justification of overriding individuals’ privacy in data sharing as well as my opinion on the issue.



Ethical Considerations

The relationship between the healthcare officials and patients is governed by four principles: autonomy (individual’s freedom), justice (fairness), beneficence (person’s benefit) and nonmaleficence (least harm). According to these bioethics principles, a healthcare provider acts only with patient’s consent, ensuring fairness and causing no or least harm with the individual’s wellbeing in mind (Lee, Heilig, & White, 2012). Therefore, conducting public health surveillance is a violation of their autonomy despite the good intentions.

During the collection of information by surveillance agencies, it is mandatory for some data to have name identification. For example, during the gathering of HIV data, it is obligatory for the hospitals to submit findings with the patient’s names (Lee, Heilig, & White, 2012). The sharing of such materials breaches the individual’s privacy as health information bearing their name is submitted to third parties without their consent. In case such information is to leak out to the public, the individual will most likely face social, economic and personal consequences.

Obligation to Sharing Data

The public health involves gathering, examination and interpretation of health-related data with the intention of prevention or control of disease, identifying the trends of importance to public health and the use of the data for public action. From the definition, the health of the community is based on the information collected from individuals. Health officials may be obligated to provide patients data after they weigh the ethical implications to the biomedical ethics (Public Health Leadership Society, 2011). The health care providers may share information if the benefits that accrue are favorable to the patient as well.

The healthcare providers may also share individuals’ information for the sake of community health. As a part of the public health system, the health officials are obligated to share the data that will assist to prevent or control a disease in the community (Rubel, 2012). Public health surveillance is highly reliant on data from individuals’ information. Without it, the programs would fail to achieve their purpose – promoting community health. Proper planning on disease prevention and public health intervention relies on the provision of accurate data to the planners (Fairchild & Bayer, 2015).

Ethical Considerations Fundamental in Sharing Health Data

In the achievement of public health, the revelation of individuals’ identity may be inevitable. However, ethical rules should still govern sharing information. First, the information obtained should only be the data necessary for the promotion of public health. Any other addition unnecessary, data should not be collected. Secondly, it should be least sensitive if possible because that will be beneficial to the individuals. Lastly, the collection and sharing of individuals’ information must only be done if the public is endangered and will benefit from it. Personal privacy should not be violated for any other cause if not for the promotion of public health.

Personal Standpoint

In my point of view, the violation of individual autonomy is a necessary evil if public health is at stake. For example, the reporting of a patient with an infectious disease is important if the community’s health is to be safeguarded. The uses of the patient’s personal information to try and prevent an outbreak are necessary (Public Health Leadership Society, 2011). In the case of public health intervention planning, the revelation of data to the policy makers may be vital in proper planning and implementation of policies. For example, it may be important for a state to reveal the number of HIV-infected individuals so that appropriate resources are diverted to curb its spread (Lee, Heilig, & White, 2012).



The violation of individuals’ autonomy is needed if community health is going to be ensured. Stopping epidemics or preventing the development of a disease in the community can only be achieved through acting on individuals’ personal data. However, the breach of personal identity should be done when public health benefits are justifiable. The level of violation should only be kept at the minimum to guarantee the individual’s privacy as much as possible.

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