Retrospective research: what are the ethical and legal requirements?
Retrospective research is conducted on already available data and/or biologic material. Whether such research requires that patients specifically consent to the use of “their” data continues to stir controversy. From a legal and ethical point of view, it depends on several factors. The main criteria to be considered are whether the data or the sample is anonymous, whether the researcher is the one who collected it and whether the patient was told of the possible research use. In Switzerland, several laws delineate the procedure to be followed. The definition of “anonymous” is open to some interpretation. In addition, it is debatable whether consent waivers that are legally admissible for data extend to research involving human biological samples. In a few years, a new Swiss federal law on human research could clarify the regulatory landscape. Meanwhile, hospital-internal guidelines may impose stricter conditions than required by federal or cantonal law. Conversely, Swiss and European ethical texts may suggest greater flexibility and call for a looser interpretation of existing laws. The present article provides an overview of the issues for physicians, scientists, ethics committee members and policy makers involved in retrospective research in Switzerland. It aims at provoking more open discussions of the regulatory problems and possible future legal and ethical solutions.
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