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A public health perspective on research ethics
  1. D R Buchanan1,
  2. F G Miller2
  1. 1University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts, USA
  2. 2National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 D Buchanan
 306 Arnold House, School of Public Health and Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003, USA; Buchanan{at}


Ethical guidelines for conducting clinical trials have historically been based on a perceived therapeutic obligation to treat and benefit the patient-participants. The origins of this ethical framework can be traced to the Hippocratic oath originally written to guide doctors in caring for their patients, where the overriding moral obligation of doctors is strictly to do what is best for the individual patient, irrespective of other social considerations. In contrast, although medicine focuses on the health of the person, public health is concerned with the health of the entire population, and thus, public health ethics is founded on the societal responsibility to protect and promote the health of the population as a whole. From a public health perspective, research ethics should be guided by giving due consideration to the risks and benefits to society in addition to the individual research participants. On the basis of a duty to protect the population as a whole, a fiduciary obligation to realise the social value of the research and the moral responsibility to distribute the benefits and burdens of research fairly across society, how a public health perspective on research ethics results in fundamental re-assessments of the proper course of action for two salient topical issues in research ethics is shown: stopping trials early for reasons of efficacy and the conduct of research on less expensive yet less effective interventions.

  • KKI, Kennedy–Kreiger Institute
  • RCT, randomised controlled trial

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  • Competing interests: None.