Contractual Mechanisms for Securing the Public Interest in Data Sharing in Public-Private Health Research Partnerships
Public private partnerships (PPPs) are increasingly common in health research, with large European investment over the last 20 years and renewed focus in the wake of the global health crisis COVID-19. PPPs have been used for health research that seeks to collect, analyse and share personal data from research participants, often on the basis of informed or broad consent. PPPs are underpinned by contracts, both to govern the use of data and samples necessary for health research, and to govern the agreement between the public and private contracting parties of a project. This raises the question of how far contracts adequately protect public interests, for example in privacy and data protection when patient data are exposed to a broader range of potential uses from the private sector. A core principle of contract law is that you cannot contract for unlawful activity. As such, contracts could be void if their design or performance entails a breach of statute or common law, for example data protection and privacy laws or the common law duty of confidentiality. This paper analyses the implications of this general principle of illegality for contracts underpinning PPPs in health research, particularly to understand the extent to which it could operate to protect the public interest as conceived by privacy and data protection law. The paper will show how this heavily policy-driven doctrine has scope to ensure that contracts and contract terms that are contrary to public policy are void or unenforceable which, in the context of PPPs using personal information for health innovation and research, is a welcome, though limited, accountability mechanism in private law that could operate to serve the public interest.
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