Changing US Support for Public Health Data Uses through Pandemic and Political Turmoil

Early View Original Scholarship
COVID-19 Public Health

Policy Points:

  • This study examines the impact of several world-changing events in 2020, such as the pandemic and widespread racism protests, on the US population’s comfort with the use of identifiable data for public health. Before the 2020 election, there was no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans. However, African Americans exhibited a decrease in comfort that was different from other subgroups.
  • Our findings suggest that the public remained supportive of public health data activities through the pandemic and the turmoil of 2020 election cycle relative to other data use. However, support among African Americans for public health data use experienced a unique decline compared to other demographic groups.

Context: Recent legislative privacy efforts have not included special provisions for public health data use. Although past studies documented support for public health data use, several global events in 2020 have raised awareness and concern about privacy and data use. This study aims to understand whether the events of 2020 affected US privacy preferences on secondary uses of identifiable data, focusing on public health and research uses.

Methods: We deployed two online surveys—in February and November 2020—on data privacy attitudes and preferences using a choice-based–conjoint analysis. Participants received different data-use scenario pairs—varied by the type of data, user, and purpose—and selected scenarios based on their comfort. A hierarchical Bayes regression model simulated population preferences.

Findings: There were 1,373 responses. There was no statistically significant difference in the population’s data preferences between February and November, each showing the highest comfort with population health and research data activities and the lowest with profit-driven activities. Most subgroups’ data preferences were comparable with the population’s preferences, except African Americans who showed significant decreases in comfort with population health and research.

Conclusions: Despite world-changing events, including a pandemic, we found bipartisan public support for using identifiable data for public health and research. The decreasing support among African Americans could relate to the increased awareness of systemic racism, its harms, and persistent disparities. The US population’s preferences support including legal provisions that permit public health and research data use in US laws, which are currently lacking specific public health use permissions.

Schmit C, Larson B, Tanabe T, Ramezani M, Zheng Q, Kum H. Changing US Support for Public Health Data Uses through Pandemic and Political Turmoil. Milbank Q.2024;102(3):0506.