Ethical justification for conducting public health surveillance without patient consent

Am J Public Health. 2012 Jan;102(1):38-44. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2011.300297. Epub 2011 Nov 28.


Public health surveillance by necessity occurs without explicit patient consent. There is strong legal and scientific support for maintaining name-based reporting of infectious diseases and other types of public health surveillance. We present conditions under which surveillance without explicit patient consent is ethically justifiable using principles of contemporary clinical and public health ethics. Overriding individual autonomy must be justified in terms of the obligation of public health to improve population health, reduce inequities, attend to the health of vulnerable and systematically disadvantaged persons, and prevent harm. In addition, data elements collected without consent must represent the minimal necessary interference, lead to effective public health action, and be maintained securely.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent / ethics*
  • Population Surveillance*
  • Public Health / ethics
  • Risk
  • Social Responsibility
  • United States