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The development of the evidence-base informing end of life (EoL) care is hampered by the assumption that patients at the EoL are too vulnerable to participate in research. This study aims to systematically and critically review the evidence regarding the experiences and views of patients, caregivers, professionals and researchers about participation in EoL care research, and to identify best practices in research participation.
We searched seven electronic databases, and hand searched three journals and the bibliographies of relevant papers. Inclusion criteria were original research papers on involvement in EoL care research or its impact on participants. Critical interpretive synthesis was used to integrate the whole body of empirical evidence on this topic and generate theoretical categories from the evidence.
Of a total of 239 identified studies, 20 studies met the inclusion criteria, from: the US (11), the UK (6) and Australia (3). Most focused on patients with cancer (12) and were conducted in hospices (9) or hospitals (7). Studies enquired about issues related to: EoL care research in general (5), specific research methods (13), and trial research (2). The studies evaluating willingness to participate in EoL care research showed positive outcomes across the different parties involved in research. Factors influencing willingness were mainly physical and cognitive impairment. Participating in research was a positive experience for most patients and carers but a minority experienced distress. This was related to: characteristics of the participants; the type of research; or the way it was conducted. Participatory study designs were found particularly suitable for enabling the inclusion of a wide range of participants.
The evidence explored within this study demonstrates that the ethical concerns regarding patient participation in EoL care research are often unjustified. However, research studies in EoL care require careful design and execution that incorporates sensitivity to participants’ needs and concerns to enable their participation. An innovative conceptual model for research participation relevant for potentially vulnerable people was developed.