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Negotiating information privacy in healthcare: an empirical examination of professional practices and the reconfiguration of patienthood

Date & Time:
17:00:00 - 18:30:00,
Wednesday 4 June, 2014


In the UK media reports on information privacy breaches and confidentiality concerns abound, with the most recent controversy regarding the ‘’ extraction service drawing on data collected in primary care for research and health planning. Privacy issues have long been debated in the context of implementing health technologies, as the effort to make patient information accessible to and usable by a wide range of health professionals, researchers and planners often conflicts with notions of medical confidentiality and autonomy. Yet, we know little about how privacy is produced and negotiated as part of professional work in healthcare settings.

Drawing on an empirically informed understanding, Chrysanthi will discuss how health and IT professionals organise information privacy practices in the context of integrating patient records for the provision of HIV health services in the NHS. She will also examine how people living with a number of different health conditions negotiate their privacy preferences, with a particular emphasis on how conceptions of patienthood are becoming reconfigured in an era of genomics and ‘’. The talk will conclude with a number of policy and practice implications.

About the Seminar Series

The rapidly-declining cost of genomic sequencing promises many breakthroughs in our understanding of genetic predisposition to disease and for the development of medical treatments more precisely tailored to the individual patient. Much of this genomic data will end up in databases maintained by research and healthcare organisations (and increasingly by commercial “personal genomics” companies) which will have the ethical and legal responsibilities for preserving the privacy of such sensitive information. Unfortunately, recent research suggests that it is much more difficult than was first imagined to preserve the privacy of such information. Many existing methods for “de-identifying” or “anonymising” such data have been shown to be fragile: correlation of information from genomic databases, electronic health records and public sources such as genealogy and residence databases can often lead to surprisingly accurate inferences about the identities of individuals. If such information were to becomes widely available, it might compromise the ability of individuals to obtain health and life insurance, and might influence employment and even personal relationship decisions. Such information leakage might also well have a significant chilling effect on the public’s willingness to participate in research and clinical studies.

We are organising a series of seminars, funded by the Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute, to examine the current state of information privacy in this domain, and to look in particular at several questions:

  • To what extent can technology keep up with the arms race between “hackers” and data curators? Will recent advances in cryptography, database security architectures and “privacy preserving” data mining methods mitigate the risks, now and in the future?

  • What is the current state of legislation and regulation in this domain, and how is it likely to evolve in the face of developing attacks on privacy? Who actually owns and has control over genomic (and related health) data and its uses? Are there significant national and cultural differences which need to be taken into account (especially when data storage may transcend jurisdictional boundaries e.g. when data are stored in commercial “clouds”)?

  • To what extent does the appearance of patient-centric disease management portals such as PatientsLikeMe mitigate the concerns about privacy? Will patients’ altruistic urge to share information about themselves, their disease and their interactions with the healthcare system outweigh their concerns about their personal privacy? What is the appropriate balance between the public good which results from data sharing and the potential private loss?

  • What changes need be made to informed consent protocols to ensure that both researchers and donors fully understand and accept the risks associated with data collection and use?

  • If, as Scott McNealy (former CEO of Sun Microsystems) once said “Privacy is dead ñ get used to it,” and privacy is doomed to lose the arms race, what is the impact likely to be on public attitudes towards, and expectations of, personal genomic privacy? In a world where people are willing to commit intimate personal information to Facebook, should we even worry about the consequences of loss of genomic privacy? Or should we rather be addressing the issues inherent in completely open sharing of such information?

Answers to some or all of the above questions would have a profound impact on the practice of scientific research and medicine. A clear analysis of the risks, methods for mitigating those risks, and, alternatively, of the consequences of a deliberate policy of transparency, will help policy makers to develop realistic approaches to public education about, and the setting of guidelines for future research on, and exploitation of, personal genomic information.

Data Dump to delete


  • Dr Chrysanthi Papoutsi
  • Name: Dr Chrysanthi Papoutsi
  • Affiliation: Imperial College London/NIHR CLAHRC Northwest London
  • Role:
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  • Bio: Chrysanthi is a social scientist working at the intersection of medical sociology and organisation studies. Her research examines how care providers and patients negotiate information privacy in the context of technological innovation and change in the NHS. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Imperial College London, working with the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) Northwest London team. Chrysanthi received her DPhil in Information, Communication and the Social Sciences from the University of Oxford (Oxford Internet Institute) and Kellogg College. She had previously completed an MSc (Analysis, Design and Management of Information Systems) at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a BSc (Management Science and Technology) at the Athens University of Economics and Business in Greece.