Clash over public access rights and patient confidentiality sparks tria

A world expert and two of his university colleagues have been charged with court obstruction by the Swedish parliamentary ombudsman and now face a public criminal trial as a result of a clash over rights to access public data and the need to maintain patient confidentiality.

Christopher Gillberg, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and St George’s Hospital, London; Gunnar Svedberg, vice chancellor of the University of Gothenburg; and Arne Wittlõv, chairman of the university’s board of directors, could face fines if found guilty. The trial is scheduled for late spring.

The move follows attempts by community paediatrician Dr Leif Elinder of Uppsala and Eva Karfve, associate professor of sociology at the University of Lund to acquire the legal right to gain access to years of confidential data about patients with the disorder. Professor Karfve claimed that the data gathered in Professor Gillberg’s research had various numerical “inconsistencies.”

A court order granted Professor Karfve access to the data last year. Three of Professor Gillberg’s university colleagues destroyed the data in May, however, to protect patient confidentiality ( BMJ 2004;329: 72[Free Full Text]).

Dr Elinder first approached the parliamentary ombudsman in August 2003, prompting an investigation by the deputy state prosecutor, which began in January 2004, he said.

Dr Elinder said that he had wanted the Swedish Research Council to look at Professor Gillberg’s data; “But the council can’t force the university to [comply] if they refuse.” He said that was why he had taken the matter to the ombudsman.

In an email to the BMJ, Professor Svedberg confirmed that the charge had been brought. The relationship between the principle of public access to official records and the law governing patient confidentiality needed to be clarified, he wrote.

Asked by the BMJ if he had any comments to make on the charge, Professor Gillberg replied, “I have done nothing wrong. I have upheld the ethics that apply to all medical professionals all over the world. For this I [and the two others] have been prosecuted.”

A colleague, Professor Elias Eriksson, of the department of pharmacology, told the BMJ that Professor Gillberg had had “massive support” from clinicians and researchers in Sweden for his stance. “Regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming trial, Gillberg and his coworkers have acted just as they should,” he said.

In a separate legal case, the university has also been forced to bring charges against the perpetrators of the data destruction, in accordance with Swedish law, which forbids destruction of archived material collected with public money.

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