An Ethics Checklist for Digital Health Research in Psychiatry: Viewpoint

Francis X. Shen, Benjamin C. Silverman, Patrick Monette, Sara Kimble, Scott L. Rauch, Justin T. Baker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Background: Psychiatry has long needed a better and more scalable way to capture the dynamics of behavior and its disturbances, quantitatively across multiple data channels, at high temporal resolution in real time. By combining 24/7 data—on location, movement, email and text communications, and social media—with brain scans, genetics, genomics, neuropsychological batteries, and clinical interviews, researchers will have an unprecedented amount of objective, individual-level data. Analyzing these data with ever-evolving artificial intelligence could one day include bringing interventions to patients where they are in the real world in a convenient, efficient, effective, and timely way. Yet, the road to this innovative future is fraught with ethical dilemmas as well as ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI). Objective: The goal of the Ethics Checklist is to promote careful design and execution of research. It is not meant to mandate particular research designs; indeed, at this early stage and without consensus guidance, there are a range of reasonable choices researchers may make. However, the checklist is meant to make those ethical choices explicit, and to require researchers to give reasons for their decisions related to ELSI issues. The Ethics Checklist is primarily focused on procedural safeguards, such as consulting with experts outside the research group and documenting standard operating procedures for clearly actionable data (eg, expressed suicidality) within written research protocols. Methods: We explored the ELSI of digital health research in psychiatry, with a particular focus on what we label “deep phenotyping” psychiatric research, which combines the potential for virtually boundless data collection and increasingly sophisticated techniques to analyze those data. We convened an interdisciplinary expert stakeholder workshop in May 2020, and this checklist emerges out of that dialogue. Results: Consistent with recent ELSI analyses, we find that existing ethical guidance and legal regulations are not sufficient for deep phenotyping research in psychiatry. At present, there are regulatory gaps, inconsistencies across research teams in ethics protocols, and a lack of consensus among institutional review boards on when and how deep phenotyping research should proceed. We thus developed a new instrument, an Ethics Checklist for Digital Health Research in Psychiatry (“the Ethics Checklist”). The Ethics Checklist is composed of 20 key questions, subdivided into 6 interrelated domains: (1) informed consent; (2) equity, diversity, and access; (3) privacy and partnerships; (4) regulation and law; (5) return of results; and (6) duty to warn and duty to report. Conclusions: Deep phenotyping research offers a vision for vastly more effective care for people with, or at risk for, psychiatric disease. The potential perils en route to realizing this vision are significant; however, and researchers must be willing to address the questions in the Ethics Checklist before embarking on each leg of the journey.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere31146
JournalJournal of medical Internet research
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
©Francis X Shen, Benjamin C Silverman, Patrick Monette, Sara Kimble, Scott L Rauch, Justin T Baker.


  • Computataional psychiatry
  • Digital phenotyping
  • Ethics
  • Informed consent
  • Law
  • Privacy


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