VA issues new data ethics principles

The VA published nine ethics principles for accessing and handling veterans' data.
Department of Veterans Affairs, VA
(Getty Images)

The Department of Veterans Affairs issued new ethics principles for accessing and handling veterans’ data, it announced Monday.

The nine principles are designed to ensure the safe and responsible use of data, especially personally identifiable information like medical data. With the increased use of data, particularly during COVID-19 response, comes thorny issues of how that data is used, protected and accessed, which the new principles aim to address.

In full, the principles developed by VA’s Data Ethics Group are:

  • The primary goal for use of Veteran data is for the good of Veterans.
  • Veteran data should be used in a manner that ensures equity to Veterans.
  • The sharing of Veteran data should be based on the Veteran’s meaningful choice.
  • Access to and exchange of Veteran data should be transparent and consistent.
  • De-identified Veteran data should not be reidentified without authorization.
  • There is an obligation of reciprocity for gains made using Veteran data.
  • All parties are obligated to ensure data security, quality and integrity of Veteran data.
  • Veterans should be able to access to their own information.
  • Veterans have the right to request amendments to their own information.

“VA’s principle-based ethics framework takes a proactive approach to data management and privacy by setting standards for our partners to follow,” acting VA Undersecretary for Health  Richard Stone said in a statement. “VA is applying this framework to all data interoperability initiatives, including those tied to our COVID-19 response and modernization efforts.”

The set of principles comes as the VA is undertaking a massive modernization of its legacy electronic health record system, migrating to a new cloud-based Cerner EHR platform that the department hopes will bring its health care into the digital age. The Government Accountability Office recently instructed the VA to pause the rollout of the program to do more testing and fixing known issues, but the department said it won’t heed that advice.

The VA has expanded data access and usage in other ways with a host of new applications and APIs, some of which allow veterans to access their own data from iPhones. The expansion of data access has raised questions from lawmakers in the past over the VA’s security practices and their work to rid their networks of Chinese technology. The VA has also dabbled in AI projects to detect veterans at risk for suicide.

The principles follow other agencies that have enumerated broad guidelines for ethical data use. In 2020, the DOD adopted ethical principles for the use of artificial intelligence, which is heavily data-reliant.

The VA said it wants to have all its policies reflect the new principles by the end of 2022.

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