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Public health scholars have long called for preparedness to help better negotiate ethical issues that emerge during public health emergencies. In this paper we argue that the concept of ethical preparedness has much to offer other areas of health beyond pandemic emergencies, particularly in areas where rapid technological developments have the potential to transform aspects of health research and care, as well as the relationship between them. We do this by viewing the ethical decision-making process as a behaviour, and conceptualising ethical preparedness as providing a health research/care setting that can facilitate the promotion of this behaviour. We draw on an implementation science and behaviour change model, COM-B, to demonstrate that to be ethically prepared requires having the capability (ability), opportunity, and motivation (willingness) to work in an ethically prepared way. We use two case examples from our empirical research-one pandemic and one non-pandemic related-to illustrate how our conceptualisation of ethical preparedness can be applied in practice. The first case study was of the UK NHSX COVID-19 contact tracing application case study involved eight in-depth interviews with people involved with the development/governance of this application. The second case involved a complex case regarding familial communication discussed at the UK Genethics Forum. We used deductive qualitative analysis based on the COM-B model categories to analyse the transcripbed data from each case study. Our analysis highlighted that being ethically prepared needs to go beyond merely equipping health professionals with skills and knowledge, or providing research governance actors with ethical principles and/or frameworks. To allow or support these different actors to utilise their skills and knowledge (or principles and frameworks), a focus on the physical and social opportunity is important, as is a better understanding the role of motivation. To understand ethical preparedness, we need to view the process of ethical decision-making as a behaviour. We have provided insight into the specific factors that are needed to promote this behaviour-using examples from both in the pandemic context as well as in areas of health research and medicine where there have been rapid technological developments. This offers a useful starting point for further conceptual work around the notion of being ethically prepared.

Original publication




Journal article


BMC medical ethics

Publication Date





Clinical Ethics, Law and Society (CELS), Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX3 7BN, UK.


Humans, Emergencies, Morals, Public Health, Pandemics, COVID-19