Twelve-point plan tackles moral and ethical issues of using email for health research

Email provides exciting new opportunities for health researchers but also raises a wide range of moral and ethical issues, according to a paper in the latest Journal of Advanced Nursing.

Patient confidentiality is paramount and making IT experts an integral part of any email-based research team is essential, says Dr Debbie Kralik from the University of South Australia.

"Researchers work to very strict ethical protocols" she says. "However, a variety of complex issues arise during email research that can make the application of traditional ethical standards, such as consent, identity and confidentiality, difficult."

Dr Kralik and her team from the School of Nursing and Midwifery have been using email as part of their joint research with the Royal District Nursing Service into how people live with chronic illness

Together with their technical expert - Dr Jim Warren from the University's Advanced Computer Research Centre - they have developed a 12-point plan which they feel may help other researchers considering email research.

"Using email has enabled us to carry out research with people over an extended period and at a time and pace that suits them, irrespective of geography. Because the people we are working with have chronic illnesses, it also enables us to include people who may not otherwise feel able to participate" adds Dr Kralik.

"But we need to approach this type of research carefully and ensure that as many safeguards as possible are put in place to protect participants."

A number of issues need to be considered before email research is undertaken. These include

  • Making sure that people thinking of taking part in the study are very clear about what this will entail and that they provide their informed consent. Dr Kralik argues that people who are housebound or unable to provide a signature would be not be able to complete a traditional form, so email is a valid form of consent. <

Contact: Annette Whibley
Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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