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Certificates of Confidentiality

Posted on December 6, 2007

Celia B. Fisher (bio) describes the certificate of confidentiality.


A lot of people are unaware about the certificate of confidentiality, which is actually something that most researchers should know about if they’re working with vulnerable populations. The National Institute of Health, the PHS [Public Health Service], provides a certificate of confidentiality. You have to apply for it and they need to approve it, but what it does it — the purpose of this certificate is to protect the investigator from being forced by subpoena to reveal confidential information that he or she has collected from participants.

Now, the certificate — some people don’t know that you can obtain a certificate whether or not you have a federal grant. The key is whether or not the type of information you’re collecting is placing participants — might place participants at a particular level of risk, if in fact the confidential information was disclosed. Typically, that’s legal risk, economic risk, risk in having your healthcare jeopardized, your employment jeopardized. So, you need to read the rules to see whether or not the types of information you’re collecting would, in fact, if revealed through subpoena, place those individuals at risk. And you must, in your informed consent, inform your participants that you have a certificate of confidentiality.

Now, of course, that’s a plus for them because it means that you have the right to withhold data from subpoena. Now there are a number of caveats with the certificate of confidentiality. One of the caveats are that it does not cover child abuse so that if in fact you become privy to child abuse or child abuse is in your records, it’s — government agencies or police officer can — the court can subpoena those records.

Also, the certificate of confidentiality does not prevent the researcher from disclosing information if they so choose. So for example, if, within the informed consent they are saying that they will disclose information if the subject or someone else is in jeopardy of harm, then the certificate protects others from subpoenaing the records, but it does not prevent the researcher from releasing confidential information if, in fact, it was placed within the informed consent about the limits of what confidentiality was.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2007 SRCD Biennial Meeting in Boston, MA.


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