Over recent years in the UK there has been growing interest in the potential for routinely collected NHS (National Health Service) patient data to be used for secondary purposes, facilitated by the potential of increasingly sophisticated electronic databases. This article is based on a critically reflective literature review which analyses the key debates pertaining to this issue. The work arose in the context of a programme of research concerning routine patient data use in neonatal care. The article includes analysis of commentary (opinion and ethical inquiry) as well as empirically derived claims. It aims to deconstruct the knowledge assumptions on which relevant research studies have been based or are proposed and it also incorporates ontological position and moral argument. Results are presented according to three predominant debates: the prevailing claim that all health research benefits civic society; the varieties of informed consent and choices open to patients regarding secondary uses of their data; and the 'rights and responsibilities' of patients when it comes to their data being used for research purposes. It examines the relevance of these themes specifically to the neonatal context and the implications for our own research, concluding that employing an alternative ethical model to the traditional professional one might be useful in order to provide a further perspective on the issue.