Health research and systems’ governance are at risk: should the right to data protection override health?

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The European Union (EU) Data Protection Regulation will have profound implications for public health, health services research and statistics in Europe. The EU Commission's Proposal was a breakthrough in balancing privacy rights and rights to health and healthcare. The European Parliament, however, has proposed extensive amendments. This paper reviews the amendments proposed by the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs and their implications for health research and statistics. The amendments eliminate most innovations brought by the Proposal. Notably, derogation to the general prohibition of processing sensitive data shall be allowed for public interests such as the management of healthcare services, but not health research, monitoring, surveillance and governance. The processing of personal health data for historical, statistical or scientific purposes shall be allowed only with the consent of the data subject or if the processing serves an exceptionally high public interest, cannot be performed otherwise and is legally authorised. Research, be it academic, government, corporate or market research, falls under the same rule. The proposed amendments will make difficult or render impossible research and statistics involving the linkage and analysis of the wealth of data from clinical, administrative, insurance and survey sources, which have contributed to improving health outcomes and health systems performance and governance; and may illegitimise efforts that have been made in some European countries to enable privacy-respectful data use for research and statistical purposes. If the amendments stand as written, the right to privacy is likely to override the right to health and healthcare in Europe.

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