This is a guest post from AHCJ member Rose Hoban, R.N., M.P.H.
What kind of information are public health officials obligated to provide to members of the public during an epidemic?
That was the theme of a panel this month at the third Public Health Law Conference in Atlanta with the theme of “Informing the Public While Protecting Privacy.”
I was asked to be part of the panel as a result of my participation in a collaborative effort between members of AHCJ and the leaders of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers and the National Association of County and City Health Officials, several state health directors, and representatives from federal agencies in 2010.
During that effort, we sat down to talk about creation of guidance for communicating during crises such as the H1N1 outbreak that took place in 2009-10.
I presented that guidance and the context of its creation to a room of about 40 attorneys who practice in the public health space. I acknowledged the difficulty public health officials have walking the line between giving journalists enough information to report effectively while allowing them to feel confident they’re protecting privacy. I also reassured them that by following the guidance, they’d be able to do both.
Also on the panel was Khaled El Emam, a professor of informatics from the University of Ottawa, who runs the Electronic Health Information Lab.
El Emam talked about his research in de-identifying personal identifying information in large databases, and the surprising ease with which one can glean personal information about an individual even within a large database.
He presented a tool developed by the lab that calculates the probability of an individual being identified in a given population. Continue reading