Bioethics Blogs

Watching Your Spouse Die on a Television Reality Show: De-Identification as a Myth, in Death and Life

Much biomedical research relies on the idea of “de-identification.” The Common Rule, the federal regulation on human subjects research, applies, as a general matter, if the researchers make some kind of intervention with the research subject or if they use “identifiable private information” about the research subject. But the “Private information must be individually identifiable (i.e., the identity of the subject is or may readily be ascertained by the investigator or associated with the information) in order for obtaining the information to constitute research involving human subjects.”

If the private information was not collected by the researcher (it comes from someone’s medical record or was collected as part of someone else’s research) and the research subject’s identity is not known to and cannot “readily be ascertained” by the researcher, it doesn’t count. No consent is required, no IRB review is required – it isn’t “human subjects research.”

And why should it be? If no one knows it is you, you cannot be hurt, or so the argument goes.

On January 2, the New York Times published an extraordinary article entitled Dying in the E.R., and on TV Without His Family’s Consent by Charles Ornstein, a reporter for ProPublica. It recounted how Anita Chanko, a 75-year-old widow, watching an ABC reality television show, NYMed, suddenly realized that she was watching her husband’s death in the emergency room. More than a year earlier, the 83-year-old man had been hit by a garbage truck while crossing the street and had died in the NewYork-Presbyterian hospital. The televised version blurred his face, but not the face of the surgeon, the description of the accident, or the sound of her late husband’s voice, asking “Does my wife know I’m here?”

At no time were any of the family told  that Mr.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.