Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California


UC San Francisco Previously Published Works bannerUCSF

Journalists, district attorneys and researchers: why IRBs should get in the middle



Federal regulations in the United States have shaped Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to focus on protecting individual human subjects. Health services research studies focusing on healthcare institutions such as hospitals or clinics do not have individual human subjects. Since U.S. federal regulations are silent on what type of review, if any, these studies require, different IRBs may approach similar studies differently, resulting in undesirable variation in the review of studies focusing on healthcare institutions. Further, although these studies do not focus on individual human subjects, they may pose risks to participating institutions, as well as individuals who work at those institutions, if identifying information becomes public.


Using two recent health services research studies conducted in the U.S. as examples, we discuss variations in the level of IRB oversight for studies focusing on institutions rather than individual human subjects. We highlight how lack of IRB guidance poses challenges for researchers who wish to both protect their subjects and work appropriately with the public, journalists or the legal system in the U.S. Competing interests include the public's interest in transparency, the researcher's interest in their science, and the research participants' interests in confidentiality. Potential solutions that may help guide health services researchers to balance these competing interests include: 1) creating consensus guidelines and standard practices that address confidentiality risk to healthcare institutions and their employees; and 2) expanding the IRB role to conduct a streamlined review of health services research studies focusing on healthcare institutions to balance the competing interest of stakeholders on a case-by-case basis.


For health services research studies focusing on healthcare institutions, we outline the competing interests of researchers, healthcare institutions and the public. We propose solutions to decrease undesirable variations in the review of these studies.

Many UC-authored scholarly publications are freely available on this site because of the UC's open access policies. Let us know how this access is important for you.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View