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October 16, 1996

Ethics and Epidemiology

JAMA. 1996;276(15):1265-1266. doi:10.1001/jama.1996.03540150067036

My initial thought on seeing this book was to wonder how epidemiologists came to be involved in ethical issues. Whereas ethics involves the interactions of live souls, I thought, epidemiologists concern themselves with figures, computer printouts, and statistical tests.

Not so. The editors, Steven Coughlin, an epidemiologist, and Tom Beauchamp, a philosopher, state in the preface, "... epidemiologists have professional obligations both to advance scientific knowledge and [emphasis mine] to enhance, protect, and restore public health through the application of this knowledge. [They] must plan and conduct studies that involve live subjects, analyze the results, and, an increasingly tricky part, explain their implications." In this book, 18 contributors from the fields of epidemiology, ethics, and law examine "how knowledge is acquired, and how moral judgments are made regarding the acquisition and use of knowledge."

The chapters are divided among five sections: "Foundations," "Informed Consent, Privacy and Confidentiality," "Balancing Risks and Benefits,"