National Health Ethics Week
3 Nov 2021
This week is National Health Ethics Week, a week where health communities across Canada raise awareness of ethics issues related to health and health care, provide greater visibility for Canadian ethics committees, services and supports, and provide an opportunity for Canadians to engage in important dialogue about current health ethics issues facing their communities.
The importance of health ethics is undeniable. Those working in the field must identify health care dilemmas and make decisions while protecting the rights and interests of individuals and communities. This is true for health care professionals on the front lines as well as organizations that conduct research, produce knowledge products and provide services and education that inform policies and best practices.
Public Health Ethics
Public health ethics seeks to clarify, prioritize, and justify possible courses of public health investigation and action based on ethical principles, values, and scientific information. At Public Health Ontario (PHO), consideration of the principles of public health ethics is imbedded in everything we do.
We foster excellence and integrity in the public health sector by delivering new evidence, methods, and capacities that support practice, programming, and decision-making, all with the aim of improving the health of all Ontarians. We share our knowledge and expertise with our partners by providing consultations, leading workshops, and sharing resources.
Ethics Review Board
In 2012 PHO created an Ethics Review Board (ERB). The ERB was created as an in-house resource to respond to the need for a body that is specific to and familiar with public health research. The ERB is responsible for the ethics review of evidence-generating public health projects that involve human participants and their data, including research, evaluation, and quality improvement. The ERB reviews projects to ensure that they are consistent with ethical standards and principles, including Canada’s Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS 2) and PHO’s Framework for the Ethical Conduct of Public Health Initiatives. PHO’s Framework provides an interpretation of TCPS 2 through a public health lens, with a goal to helping users apply ethics principles to public health projects.
The ERB has the authority to approve, reject, propose modifications to or withdraw approval of any eligible projects submitted for review. The ERB also participates in the development of best practices for addressing emerging ethical issues in the conduct of public health evidence-generating initiatives across the province.
As part of PHO’s provincial scientific role to support local public health projects, the ERB acts as a centralized hub that provides consistent, effective, and efficient ethics review services for projects conducted at PHO and upon request, for Public Health Units (PHU) across the province. PHO provides PHUs with formal ethics board review and ethics consultation, and collaborates with PHUs in an ongoing public health ethics community of practice. Through the determinations made for individual projects, the ERB also helps to establish norms and best practices for addressing emerging ethical issues associated with the evidence-generating public health activities.
Collaborating PHUs that require ethics review can choose to appoint PHO’s ERB as their board of record (BOR) for a particular project. Currently the ERB has BOR agreements with 19 PHUs to document the roles and responsibilities of partners, and to provide ethics review and support services to meet their evolving and diverse needs.
Ontario Health Data Platform
PHO’s ERB is collaborating with Ontario’s Ministry of Health to provide a streamlined process for ethics review of, and serve as the BOR for research projects seeking to use the Ontario Health Data Platform (OHDP). The OHDP is a provincial initiative to support Ontario’s ongoing response to COVID-19 and its related impacts, and provides secure data access to researchers to better detect, plan and respond to COVID-19. This work will be informed by the ERB’s ongoing work to develop processes and standards for the ethics review of projects using Artificial Intelligence methods.