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Open Access Debate

Screening for depression in medical research: ethical challenges and recommendations

Aisling M Sheehan1 and Hannah McGee2*

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Population Health Sciences, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin, Ireland

2 Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin, Ireland

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BMC Medical Ethics 2013, 14:4  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-14-4

Published: 8 January 2013

Abstract

Background

Due to the important role of depression in major illnesses, screening measures for depression are commonly used in medical research. The protocol for managing participants with positive screens is unclear and raises ethical concerns. The aim of this article is to identify and critically discuss the ethical issues that arise when a positive screen for depression is detected, and offer some guidance on managing these issues.

Discussion

Deciding on whether to report positive screens to healthcare practitioners is both an ethical and a pragmatic dilemma. Evidence suggests that reporting positive depression screens should only be considered in the context of collaborative care. Possible adverse effects, such as the impact of false-positive results, potentially inappropriate labelling, and potentially inappropriate treatment also need to be considered. If possible, the psychometric properties of the selected screening measure should be determined in the target population, and a threshold for depression that minimises the rate of false-positive results should be chosen. It should be clearly communicated to practitioners that screening scores are not diagnostic for depression, and they should be informed about the diagnostic accuracy of the measure. Research participants need to be made aware of the consequences of the detection of high scores on screening measures, and to be fully informed about the implications of the research protocol.

Summary

Further research is needed and the experiences of researchers, participants, and practitioners need to be collated before the value of reporting positive screens for depression can be ascertained. In developing research protocols, the ethical challenges highlighted should be considered. Participants must be agreeable to the agreed protocol and efforts should be made to minimise potentially adverse effects.

Keywords:
Depression; Screening; Ethics; Research