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The Data Protection (Amendment) Act, 2003: The Data Protection Directive and its Implications for Medical Research in Ireland

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Directive 95/46/EC on the Protection of Individuals with regard to the Processing of Personal Data and on the Free Movement of Such Data has been transposed into national law and is now the Data Protection (Amendment) Act, 2003.

The Directive and the transposing Act provide for new obligations to those processing data. The new obligation of primary concern is the necessity to obtain consent prior to the processing of data (Article 7, Directive 95/46/EC). This has caused much concern especially in relation to 'secondary data' or 'archived data'.

There exist, what seem to be in the minds of the medical research community, two competing interests: (i) that of the need to obtain consent prior to processing data and (ii) the need to protect and foster medical research. At the same time as the introduction of the Act, other prior legislation, i.e. the Freedom of Information Act, 1997-2003, has encouraged candour within the doctor-patient relationship and the High Court in Ireland, in the case of Geoghegan v. Harris, has promulgated the 'reasonable-patient test' as being the correct law in relation to the disclosure of risks to patients. The court stated that doctors have a duty to disclose all material risks to patients. The case demonstrates an example of a move toward a more open medical relationship. An example of this rationale was also recently seen in the United Kingdom in the House of Lords decision in Chester v. Afshar. Within the medical research community in Ireland, the need to respect the autonomy of patients and research participants by providing information to such parties has also been observed (Sheikh A. A., 2000 and Irish Council for Bioethics, 2005).

Disquiet has been expressed in Ireland and other jurisdictions by the medical research communities in relation to the exact working and meaning of the Directive and therefore the transposing Acts (Strobl et al). This may be due to the fact that, as observed by Beyleveld "The Directive makes no specific mention of medical research and, consequently, it contains no provisions for medical research as an explicitly delineated category." (Beyleveld D., 2004) This paper examines the Irish Act and discusses whether the concerns expressed are well-founded and if the Act is open to interpretation such that it would not hamper medical research and public health work.


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