Intended for healthcare professionals


Commentary: Consent and confidentiality in publishing—the view of the BMJ’s ethics committee

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 08 September 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1232
  1. Ainsley J Newson, senior lecturer in biomedical ethics1,
  2. Julian Sheather, deputy head of medical ethics2
  1. 1Centre for Ethics in Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol BS6 6AU
  2. 2British Medical Association, BMA House, London
  1. Correspondence to: A J Newson ainsley.newson{at}

    Two years ago four paediatricians and an ethicist submitted to the BMJ a case study as an ethical debate which the BMJ decided not to publish because the authors had not obtained the consent of the patient’s parents for publication. The authors submitted it elsewhere, and the article was published last year.

    Here the authors explain why they think the BMJ should have published despite the lack of consent (doi 10.1136/bmj.a1231); the editor of the journal that did publish the case study explains why he did so (doi: 10.1136/bmj.a1233); and two members of the BMJ’s ethics committee explain why they recommended not to publish it. An accompanying editorial explains why English law would now not allow the BMJ to publish it without consent, even if we thought it reasonable to do so.

    We explain here the response of the BMJ’s ethics committee to the case study submitted by Isaacs and colleagues and make some broader points about the need for patient consent to publish case studies. We conclude that the “public interest” criterion for publication justifiably has a high threshold, which was not met by this paper. Yet we recognise that policy formation in this contested area can be difficult and that further debate is required.

    The publication of case studies in medical journals provides a rich narrative of clinical practice with valuable lessons for other practitioners and has extended ethical debates, suggested …

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