Current ethical and social issues in epidemiology
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PURPOSE: The American College of Epidemiology held its 2021 Annual Meeting virtually, September 8-10, with a conference theme of 'From Womb to Tomb: Insights from Health Emergencies'. The American College of Epidemiology Ethics Committee hosted a symposium session in recognition of the ethical and social challenges brought to light by the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic and on the occasion of the publication of the third edition of the classic text, Ethics and Epidemiology. The American College of Epidemiology Ethics Committee invited the book editor and contributing authors to present at the symposium session titled 'Current Ethical and Social Issues in Epidemiology.' The purpose of this paper is to further highlight the ethical challenges and presentations. METHODS: Three speakers with expertise in ethics, health law, health policy, global health, health information technology, and translational research in epidemiology and public health were selected to present on the social and ethical issues in the current landscape. Dr. S Coughlin presented on the 'Ethical and Social Issues in Epidemiology', Dr. L Beskow presented on 'Ethical Challenges in Genetic Epidemiology', and Dr. K Goodman presented on the 'Ethics of Health Informatics'. RESULTS: New digital sources of data and technologies are driving the ethical challenges and opportunities in epidemiology and public health as it relates to the three emerging topic areas identified: (1) digital epidemiology, (2) genetic epidemiology, and (3) health informatics. New complexities such as the reliance on social media to control infectious disease outbreaks and the introduction of computing advancements are requiring re-evaluation of traditional bioethical frameworks for epidemiology research and public health practice. We identified several cross-cutting ethical and social issues related to informed consent, benefits, risks and harms, and privacy and confidentiality and summarized these alongside more nuanced ethical considerations such as algorithmic bias, group harms related to data (mis)representation, risks of misinformation, return of genomic research results, maintaining data security, and data sharing. We offered an integrated synthesis of the stages of epidemiology research planning and conduct with the ethical issues that are most relevant in these emerging topic areas. CONCLUSIONS: New realities exist for epidemiology and public health as professional groups who are faced with addressing population health, and especially given the recent pandemic and the widespread use of digital tools and technologies. Many ethical issues can be understood in the context of existing ethical frameworks; however, they have yet to be clearly identified or connected with the new technical and methodological applications of digital tools and technologies currently in use for epidemiology research and public health practice. To address current ethical challenges, we offered a synthesis of traditional ethical principles in public health science alongside more nuanced ethical considerations for emerging technologies and aligned these with lifecycle stages of epidemiology research. By critically reflecting on the impact of new digital sources of data and technologies on epidemiology research and public health practice, specifically in the control of infectious outbreaks, we offered insights on cultivating these new areas of professional growth while striving to improve population health.
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