This article is part of a series of papers examining ethical issues in cluster randomized trials (CRTs) in health research. In the introductory paper in this series, we set out six areas of inquiry that must be addressed if the cluster trial is to be set on a firm ethical foundation. This paper addresses the second of the questions posed, namely, from whom, when, and how must informed consent be obtained in CRTs in health research? The ethical principle of respect for persons implies that researchers are generally obligated to obtain the informed consent of research subjects. Aspects of CRT design, including cluster randomization, cluster level interventions, and cluster size, present challenges to obtaining informed consent. Here we address five questions related to consent and CRTs: How can a study proceed if informed consent is not possible? Is consent to randomization always required? What information must be disclosed to potential subjects if their cluster has already been randomized? Is passive consent a valid substitute for informed consent? Do health professionals have a moral obligation to participate as subjects in CRTs designed to improve professional practice?
We set out a framework based on the moral foundations of informed consent and international regulatory provisions to address each of these questions. First, when informed consent is not possible, a study may proceed if a research ethics committee is satisfied that conditions for a waiver of consent are satisfied. Second, informed consent to randomization may not be required if it is not possible to approach subjects at the time of randomization. Third, when potential subjects are approached after cluster randomization, they must be provided with a detailed description of the interventions in the trial arm to which their cluster has been randomized; detailed information on interventions in other trial arms need not be provided. Fourth, while passive consent may serve a variety of practical ends, it is not a substitute for valid informed consent. Fifth, while health professionals may have a moral obligation to participate as subjects in research, this does not diminish the necessity of informed consent to study participation.
This article is part of a series of papers examining ethical issues in cluster randomized trials (CRTs) in health research. In the introductory paper in this series, Weijer and colleagues set out six areas of inquiry that must be addressed if the cluster trial is to be set on a firm ethical foundation. This paper addresses the third of the questions posed, namely, does clinical equipoise apply to CRTs in health research? The ethical principle of beneficence is the moral obligation not to harm needlessly and, when possible, to promote the welfare of research subjects. Two related ethical problems have been discussed in the CRT literature. First, are control groups that receive only usual care unduly disadvantaged? Second, when accumulating data suggests the superiority of one intervention in a trial, is there an ethical obligation to act?
In individually randomized trials involving patients, similar questions are addressed by the concept of clinical equipoise, that is, the ethical requirement that, at the start of a trial, there be a state of honest, professional disagreement in the community of expert practitioners as to the preferred treatment. Since CRTs may not involve physician-researchers and patient-subjects, the applicability of clinical equipoise to CRTs is uncertain. Here we argue that clinical equipoise may be usefully grounded in a trust relationship between the state and research subjects, and, as a result, clinical equipoise is applicable to CRTs. Clinical equipoise is used to argue that control groups receiving only usual care are not disadvantaged so long as the evidence supporting the experimental and control interventions is such that experts would disagree as to which is preferred. Further, while data accumulating during the course of a CRT may favor one intervention over another, clinical equipoise supports continuing the trial until the results are likely to be broadly convincing, often coinciding with the planned completion of the trial. Finally, clinical equipoise provides research ethics committees with formal and procedural guidelines that form an important part of the assessment of the benefits and harms of CRTs in health research.
This article is part of a series of papers examining ethical issues in cluster randomized trials (CRTs) in health research. In the introductory paper in this series, we set out six areas of inquiry that must be addressed if the CRT is to be set on a firm ethical foundation. This paper addresses the first of the questions posed, namely, who is the research subject in a CRT in health research? The identification of human research subjects is logically prior to the application of protections as set out in research ethics and regulation. Aspects of CRT design, including the fact that in a single study the units of randomization, experimentation, and observation may differ, complicate the identification of human research subjects. But the proper identification of human research subjects is important if they are to be protected from harm and exploitation, and if research ethics committees are to review CRTs efficiently.
We examine the research ethics literature and international regulations to identify the core features of human research subjects, and then unify these features under a single, comprehensive definition of human research subject. We define a human research subject as any person whose interests may be compromised as a result of interventions in a research study. Individuals are only human research subjects in CRTs if: (1) they are directly intervened upon by investigators; (2) they interact with investigators; (3) they are deliberately intervened upon via a manipulation of their environment that may compromise their interests; or (4) their identifiable private information is used to generate data. Individuals who are indirectly affected by CRT study interventions, including patients of healthcare providers participating in knowledge translation CRTs, are not human research subjects unless at least one of these conditions is met.
This article is part of a series of papers examining ethical issues in cluster randomized trials (CRTs) in health research. In the introductory paper in this series, we set out six areas of inquiry that must be addressed if the CRT is to be set on a firm ethical foundation. This paper addresses the sixth of the questions posed, namely, what is the role and authority of gatekeepers in CRTs in health research? ‘Gatekeepers’ are individuals or bodies that represent the interests of cluster members, clusters, or organizations. The need for gatekeepers arose in response to the difficulties in obtaining informed consent because of cluster randomization, cluster-level interventions, and cluster size. In this paper, we call for a more restrictive understanding of the role and authority of gatekeepers.
Previous papers in this series have provided solutions to the challenges posed by informed consent in CRTs without the need to invoke gatekeepers. We considered that consent to randomization is not required when cluster members are approached for consent at the earliest opportunity and before any study interventions or data-collection procedures have started. Further, when cluster-level interventions or cluster size means that obtaining informed consent is not possible, a waiver of consent may be appropriate. In this paper, we suggest that the role of gatekeepers in protecting individual interests in CRTs should be limited. Generally, gatekeepers do not have the authority to provide proxy consent for cluster members. When a municipality or other community has a legitimate political authority that is empowered to make such decisions, cluster permission may be appropriate; however, gatekeepers may usefully protect cluster interests in other ways. Cluster consultation may ensure that the CRT addresses local health needs, and is conducted in accord with local values and customs. Gatekeepers may also play an important role in protecting the interests of organizations, such as hospitals, nursing homes, general practices, and schools. In these settings, permission to access the organization relies on resource implications and adherence to institutional policies.
Cluster randomized trials (CRTs) pose ethical challenges for investigators and ethics committees. This study describes the views and experiences of CRT researchers with respect to: (1) ethical challenges in CRTs; (2) the ethics review process for CRTs; and (3) the need for comprehensive ethics guidelines for CRTs.
Descriptive qualitative analysis of interviews conducted with a purposive sample of 20 experienced CRT researchers.
Informants expressed concern over the potential for bias that may result from requirements to obtain informed consent from research participants in CRTs. Informants suggested that the need for informed consent ought to be related to the type of intervention under study in a CRT. Informants rarely expressed concern regarding risks to research participants in CRTs, other than risks to privacy. Important issues identified in the research ethics literature, including fair subject selection and other justice issues, were not mentioned by informants. The ethics review process has had positive and negative impacts on CRT conduct. Informants stated that variability in ethics review between jurisdictions, and increasingly stringent ethics review in recent years, have hampered their ability to conduct CRTs. Many informants said that comprehensive ethics guidelines for CRTs would be helpful to researchers and research ethics committees.
Informants identified key ethical challenges in the conduct of CRTs, specifically relating to identifying subjects, seeking informed consent, and the use of gatekeepers. These data have since been used to identify topics for in-depth ethical analysis and to guide the development of comprehensive ethics guidelines for CRTs.
Cluster randomized trials; Research ethics; Informed consent; Clinical trials; Bioethics; Knowledge translation; Quality improvement; Implementation research
Cluster randomized trials (CRTs) present unique ethical challenges. In the absence of a uniform standard for their ethical design and conduct, problems such as variability in procedures and requirements by different research ethics committees will persist. We aimed to assess the need for ethics guidelines for CRTs among research ethics chairs internationally, investigate variability in procedures for research ethics review of CRTs within and among countries, and elicit research ethics chairs’ perspectives on specific ethical issues in CRTs, including the identification of research subjects. The proper identification of research subjects is a necessary requirement in the research ethics review process, to help ensure, on the one hand, that subjects are protected from harm and exploitation, and on the other, that reviews of CRTs are completed efficiently.
A web-based survey with closed- and open-ended questions was administered to research ethics chairs in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The survey presented three scenarios of CRTs involving cluster-level, professional-level, and individual-level interventions. For each scenario, a series of questions was posed with respect to the type of review required (full, expedited, or no review) and the identification of research subjects at cluster and individual levels.
A total of 189 (35%) of 542 chairs responded. Overall, 144 (84%, 95% CI 79 to 90%) agreed or strongly agreed that there is a need for ethics guidelines for CRTs and 158 (92%, 95% CI 88 to 96%) agreed or strongly agreed that research ethics committees could be better informed about distinct ethical issues surrounding CRTs. There was considerable variability among research ethics chairs with respect to the type of review required, as well as the identification of research subjects. The cluster-cluster and professional-cluster scenarios produced the most disagreement.
Research ethics committees identified a clear need for ethics guidelines for CRTs and education about distinct ethical issues in CRTs. There is disagreement among committees, even within the same countries, with respect to key questions in the ethics review of CRTs. This disagreement reflects variability of opinion and practices pointing toward possible gaps in knowledge, and supports the need for explicit guidelines for the ethical conduct and review of CRTs.
Cluster randomized trials; Informed consent; Research ethics guidelines; Research ethics review; Web-based survey
Cluster randomized trials are an increasingly important methodological tool in health research. In cluster randomized trials, intact social units or groups of individuals, such as medical practices, schools, or entire communities – rather than individual themselves – are randomly allocated to intervention or control conditions, while outcomes are then observed on individual cluster members. The substantial methodological differences between cluster randomized trials and conventional randomized trials pose serious challenges to the current conceptual framework for research ethics. The ethical implications of randomizing groups rather than individuals are not addressed in current research ethics guidelines, nor have they even been thoroughly explored. The main objectives of this research are to: (1) identify ethical issues arising in cluster trials and learn how they are currently being addressed; (2) understand how ethics reviews of cluster trials are carried out in different countries (Canada, the USA and the UK); (3) elicit the views and experiences of trial participants and cluster representatives; (4) develop well-grounded guidelines for the ethical conduct and review of cluster trials by conducting an extensive ethical analysis and organizing a consensus process; (5) disseminate the guidelines to researchers, research ethics boards (REBs), journal editors, and research funders.
We will use a mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) approach incorporating both empirical and conceptual work. Empirical work will include a systematic review of a random sample of published trials, a survey and in-depth interviews with trialists, a survey of REBs, and in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with trial participants and gatekeepers. The empirical work will inform the concurrent ethical analysis which will lead to a guidance document laying out principles, policy options, and rationale for proposed guidelines. An Expert Panel of researchers, ethicists, health lawyers, consumer advocates, REB members, and representatives from low-middle income countries will be appointed. A consensus conference will be convened and draft guidelines will be generated by the Panel; an e-consultation phase will then be launched to invite comments from the broader community of researchers, policy-makers, and the public before a final set of guidelines is generated by the Panel and widely disseminated by the research team.
Cluster randomized trials (CRTs) present unique methodological and ethical challenges. Researchers conducting systematic reviews of CRTs (e.g., addressing methodological or ethical issues) require efficient electronic search strategies (filters or hedges) to identify trials in electronic databases such as MEDLINE. According to the CONSORT statement extension to CRTs, the clustered design should be clearly identified in titles or abstracts; however, variability in terminology may make electronic identification challenging. Our objectives were to (a) evaluate sensitivity ("recall") and precision of a well-known electronic search strategy ("randomized controlled trial" as publication type) with respect to identifying CRTs, (b) evaluate the feasibility of new search strategies targeted specifically at CRTs, and (c) determine whether CRTs are appropriately identified in titles or abstracts of reports and whether there has been improvement over time.
We manually examined a wide range of health journals to identify a gold standard set of CRTs. Search strategies were evaluated against the gold standard set, as well as an independent set of CRTs included in previous systematic reviews.
The existing strategy (randomized controlled trial.pt) is sensitive (93.8%) for identifying CRTs, but has relatively low precision (9%, number needed to read 11); the number needed to read can be halved to 5 (precision 18.4%) by combining with cluster design-related terms using the Boolean operator AND; combining with the Boolean operator OR maximizes sensitivity (99.4%) but would require 28.6 citations read to identify one CRT. Only about 50% of CRTs are clearly identified as cluster randomized in titles or abstracts; approximately 25% can be identified based on the reported units of randomization but are not amenable to electronic searching; the remaining 25% cannot be identified except through manual inspection of the full-text article. The proportion of trials clearly identified has increased from 28% between the years 2000-2003, to 60% between 2004-2007 (absolute increase 32%, 95% CI 17 to 47%).
CRTs should include the phrase "cluster randomized trial" in titles or abstracts; this will facilitate more accurate indexing of the publication type by reviewers at the National Library of Medicine, and efficient textword retrieval of the subset employing cluster randomization.
The Nuremberg code defines the general ethical framework of medical research with participant consent as its cornerstone. In cluster randomized trials (CRT), obtaining participant informed consent raises logistic and methodologic concerns. First, with randomization of large clusters such as geographical areas, obtaining individual informed consent may be impossible. Second, participants in randomized clusters cannot avoid certain interventions, which implies that participant informed consent refers only to data collection, not administration of an intervention. Third, complete participant information may be a source of selection bias, which then raises methodological concerns. We assessed whether participant informed consent was required in such trials, which type of consent was required, and whether the trial was at risk of selection bias because of the very nature of participant information.
Methods and Findings
We systematically reviewed all reports of CRT published in MEDLINE in 2008 and surveyed corresponding authors regarding the nature of the informed consent and the process of participant inclusion. We identified 173 reports and obtained an answer from 113 authors (65.3%). In total, 23.7% of the reports lacked information on ethics committee approval or participant consent, 53.1% of authors declared that participant consent was for data collection only and 58.5% that the group allocation was not specified for participants. The process of recruitment (chronology of participant recruitment with regard to cluster randomization) was rarely reported, and we estimated that only 56.6% of the trials were free of potential selection bias.
For CRTs, the reporting of ethics committee approval and participant informed consent is less than optimal. Reports should describe whether participants consented for administration of an intervention and/or data collection. Finally, the process of participant recruitment should be fully described (namely, whether participants were informed of the allocation group before being recruited) for a better appraisal of the risk of selection bias.
Recent guidelines from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandate the inclusion of adequate numbers of women in clinical trials. Ought such standards to apply internationally? Walzer's theory of justice is brought to bear on the problem, the first use of the theory in research ethics, and it argues for broad application of the principle of adequate representation. A number of practical conclusions for research ethics committees (RECs) are outlined. Eligibility criteria in clinical trials ought to be justified by trial designers. Research ethics committees ought to question criteria that seem to exclude unnecessarily women from research participation. The issue of adequate representation should be construed broadly, so as to include consideration of the representation of the elderly, persons with HIV, mental illness and substance abuse disorders in clinical research.
Millions of people undergo displacement in the world. Internally displaced people (IDP) are especially vulnerable as they are not protected by special legislation in contrast to other migrants. Research conducted among IDPs must be correspondingly sensitive in dealing with ethical issues that may arise. Muslim IDPs in Puttalam district in the North-Western province of Sri Lanka were initially displaced from Northern Sri Lanka due to the conflict in 1991. In the backdrop of a study exploring the prevalence of common mental disorders among the IDPs, researchers encountered various ethical challenges. These included inter-related issues of autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, confidentiality and informed consent, and how these were tailored in a culture-specific way to a population that has increased vulnerability. This paper analyses how these ethical issues were perceived, detected and managed by the researchers, and the role of ethics review committees in mental health research concerning IDPs. The relevance of guidelines and methodologies in the context of an atypical study population and the benefit versus risk potential of research for IDPs are also discussed. The limitations that were encountered while dealing with ethical challenges during the study are discussed. The concept of post-research ethical conduct audit is suggested to be considered as a potential step to minimize the exploitation of vulnerable populations such as IDPs in mental health research.
Sri Lanka; Bioethics; Ethical challenges; Internally displaced people; Mental health research; Post-research ethics audit; Practical ethics; Developing world
Objectives To investigate the extent to which authors of cluster randomised trials adhered to two basic requirements of the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki and the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors’ uniform requirements for manuscripts (namely, reporting of research ethics review and informed consent), to determine whether the adequacy of reporting has improved over time, and to identify characteristics of cluster randomised trials associated with reporting of ethics practices.
Design Review of a random sample of published cluster randomised trials from an electronic search in Medline.
Setting Cluster randomised trials in health research published in English language journals from 2000 to 2008.
Study sample 300 cluster randomised trials published in 150 journals.
Results 77 (26%, 95% confidence interval 21% to 31%) trials failed to report ethics review. The proportion reporting ethics review increased significantly over time (P<0.001). Trials with data collection interventions at the individual level were more likely to report ethics review than were trials that used routine data sources only (79% (n=151) v 55% (23); P=0.008). Trials that accounted for clustering in the design and analysis were more likely to report ethics review. The median impact factor of the journal of publication was higher for trials that reported ethics review (3.4 v 2.3; P<0.001). 93 (31%, 26% to 36%) trials failed to report consent. Reporting of consent increased significantly over time (P<0.001). Trials with interventions targeting participants at the individual level were more likely to report consent than were trials with interventions targeting the cluster level (87% (90) v 48% (41); P<0.001). Trials with data collection interventions at the individual level were more likely to report consent than were those that used routine data sources only (78% (146) v 29% (11); P<0.001).
Conclusions Reporting of research ethics protections in cluster randomised trials is inadequate. In addition to research ethics approval, authors should report whether informed consent was sought, from whom consent was sought, and what consent was for.
Presently, there is a movement in the UK research governance framework towards what is referred to as proportional ethical review. Proportional ethical review is the notion that the level of ethical review and scrutiny given to a research project ought to reflect the level of ethical risk represented by that project. Relatively innocuous research should receive relatively minimal review and relatively risky research should receive intense scrutiny. Although conceptually attractive, the notion of proportional review depends on the possibility of effectively identifying the risks and ethical issues posed by an application with some process other than a full review by a properly constituted research ethics committee. In this paper, it is argued that this cannot be achieved and that the only appropriate means of identifying risks and ethical issues is consideration by a full committee. This implies that the suggested changes to the National Health Service research ethics system presently being consulted on should be strenuously resisted.
Research in the intensive care unit (ICU) is commonly thought to pose 'serious risk' to study participants. This perception may be at the root of a variety of impediments to the conduct of clinical trials in the ICU setting. Component analysis offers a promising approach to the ethical analysis of ICU research. Because clinical trials commonly involve a mixture of study interventions, therapeutic and nontherapeutic procedures must be analyzed separately. Therapeutic procedures must meet the requirement of clinical equipoise. Risks associated with nontherapeutic procedures must be minimized consistent with sound scientific design, and be deemed reasonable in relation to the knowledge to be gained. When research involves a vulnerable population, such as adults incapable of providing informed consent, nontherapeutic risks are limited to a minor increase over minimal risk. Understood in this way, the incremental risk posed by participation in ICU research may be minimal. This realization has important implications for review by institutional review boards of such research and for the informed consent process.
clinical trials; ethics; informed consent; intensive care; research regulation; risk
Improved quality of care is a policy objective of health care systems around the world. Implementation research is the scientific study of methods to promote the systematic uptake of clinical research findings into routine clinical practice, and hence to reduce inappropriate care. It includes the study of influences on healthcare professionals' behaviour and methods to enable them to use research findings more effectively. Cluster randomized trials represent the optimal design for evaluating the effectiveness of implementation strategies. Various codes of medical ethics, such as the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki inform medical research, but their relevance to cluster randomised trials in implementation research is unclear. This paper discusses the applicability of various ethical codes to obtaining consent in cluster trials in implementation research.
The appropriate application of biomedical codes to implementation research is not obvious. Discussion of the nature and practice of informed consent in implementation research cluster trials must consider the levels at which consent can be sought, and for what purpose it can be sought. The level at which an intervention is delivered can render the idea of patient level consent meaningless. Careful consideration of the ownership of information, and rights of access to and exploitation of data is required. For health care professionals and organizations, there is a balance between clinical freedom and responsibility to participate in research.
While ethical justification for clinical trials relies heavily on individual consent, for implementation research aspects of distributive justice, economics, and political philosophy underlie the debate. Societies may need to trade off decisions on the choice between individualized consent and valid implementation research. We suggest that social sciences codes could usefully inform the consideration of implementation research by members of Research Ethics Committees.
Ethics is an understanding of the nature of conflicts arising from moral imperatives and how best we may deal with them. Ethics in medical research deals with the conflicts of interest across various levels. Guidelines have been proposed for standardized ethical practice throughout the globe. The four fundamental principles of ethics which are being underscored are autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, and justice. Some special ethical issues have particular relevance to psychiatric research arising primarily from the specific vulnerabilities of those with mental illness and the risks posed by some research methodologies. Accordingly, sensitivity is required in the design of psychiatric research. It is suggested that though the value of published guidelines and the help that may be available from research ethics committees is quite great, the primary responsibility for maintaining high standards of practice in research rests with research workers themselves.
Medical ethics psychiatry; research; confidentiality; consent
Earlier in the pages of this journal (p 481), Wendler and Miller offered the “net risks test” as an alternative approach to the ethical analysis of benefits and harms in research. They have been vocal critics of the dominant view of benefit–harm analysis in research ethics, which encompasses core concepts of duty of care, clinical equipoise and component analysis. They had been challenged to come up with a viable alternative to component analysis which meets five criteria. The alternative must (1) protect research subjects; (2) allow clinical research to proceed; (3) explain how physicians may offer trial enrolment to their patients; (4) address the challenges posed by research containing a mixture of interventions and (5) define ethical standards according to which the risks and potential benefits of research may be consistently evaluated. This response argues that the net risks test meets none of these criteria and concludes that it is not a viable alternative to component analysis.
benefit‐harm analysis; clinical research; component analysis; research ethics; research ethics committee
For more than three decades clinical research in the United States has been explicitly guided by the idea that ethical considerations must be central to research design and practice. In spite of the centrality of this idea, attempting to balance the sometimes conflicting values of advancing scientific knowledge and protecting human subjects continues to pose challenges. Possible conflicts between the standards of scientific research and those of ethics are particularly salient in relation to trial design. Specifically, the choice of a control arm is an aspect of trial design in which ethical and scientific issues are deeply entwined. Although ethical quandaries related to the choice of control arms may arise when conducting any type of clinical trials, they are conspicuous in early phase gene transfer trials that involve highly novel approaches and surgical procedures and have children as the research subjects. Because of children's and their parents' vulnerabilities, in trials that investigate therapies for fatal, rare diseases affecting minors, the scientific and ethical concerns related to choosing appropriate controls are particularly significant. In this paper we use direct gene transfer to the central nervous system to treat late infantile neuronal ceroid lipofuscinosis to illustrate some of these ethical issues and explore possible solutions to real and apparent conflicts between scientific and ethical considerations.
In this article, de Melo-Martín and colleagues discuss the real and apparent conflicts between scientific and ethical considerations surrounding the choice of controls in clinical trials for rare and fatal diseases affecting children.
The function of local research ethics committees is to consider the ethics of research proposals using human participants. After approval has been given, there is no comprehensive system in place to monitor research and ensure that recommendations are carried out. Some suggest that research ethics committees are ideally placed to fulfil this function by carrying out random monitoring of research they have reviewed. The health service guideline creating local research ethics committees is under review.1 This paper suggests that increasing the monitoring role of ethics committees in the present climate would be inappropriate. This is due to the large workload of the committees, their voluntary nature and the change a monitoring role might cause to the relationship between researcher and ethics committee, which might herald an increasing recourse to judicial review. A radical overhaul of the system would be necessary in order for ethics committees adequately to fulfil a monitoring function.
Key Words: Research ethics committees • audit • monitoring • misconduct
Equipoise is advocated as a means of achieving high scientific and ethical standards in randomised trials. As used in the context of research the word describes a state of uncertainty characterised by the belief that in a trial no arm is known to offer greater harm or benefit than any other arm. Clinicians who lack personal equipoise are advised to accept clinical or communal equipoise, based on current unresolved disagreement among the medical profession. Equipoise is mainly discussed in the literature as an issue for senior doctors and research directors. Limitations of professional equipoise are reviewed, and data on the neglected topic of patients' equipoise are reported using the example of breast cancer trials. In theory, a patient who gives informed and voluntary consent to enter a randomised trial has achieved the equilibrium of equipoise. In practice, equipoise among patients ranges from personal to proxy acceptance.
There are a number of practical and ethical issues raised in school-based health research, particularly those related to obtaining consent from parents and assent from children. One approach to developing, strengthening, and supporting appropriate consent and assent processes is through community engagement. To date, much of the literature on community engagement in biomedical research has concentrated on community- or hospital-based research, with little documentation, if any, of community engagement in school-based health research. In this paper we discuss our experiences of consent, assent and community engagement in implementing a large school-based cluster randomized trial in rural Kenya.
Data collected as part of a qualitative study investigating the acceptability of the main trial, focus group discussions with field staff, observations of practice and authors’ experiences are used to: 1) highlight the challenges faced in obtaining assent/consent; and 2) strategies taken to try to both protect participant rights (including to refuse and to withdraw) and ensure the success of the trial.
Early meetings with national, district and local level stakeholders were important in establishing their co-operation and support for the project. Despite this support, both practical and ethical challenges were encountered during consenting and assenting procedures. Our strategy for addressing these challenges focused on improving communication and understanding of the trial, and maintaining dialogue with all the relevant stakeholders throughout the study period.
A range of stakeholders within and beyond schools play a key role in school based health trials. Community entry and information dissemination strategies need careful planning from the outset, and with on-going consultation and feedback mechanisms established in order to identify and address concerns as they arise. We believe our experiences, and the ethical and practical issues and dilemmas encountered, will be of interest for others planning to conduct school-based research in Africa.
National Institute of Health NCT00878007
Malaria; Cluster-randomized trial; Consent; Community engagement; School-based research; Kenya
The particular ethical problems of research in general practice and pressure from local general practitioners and hospital ethical committees led to the development of an ethical committee for general practice in the west of Scotland. The workload of this ethical committee in its first year of existence is described.
Despite the fact that many of the studies considered by the committee were sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and were often sophisticated, the ethical issues of a general practice setting had not always been fully appreciated. Of the 21 study proposals submitted over the year 13 showed areas of ethical uncertainty. However, all the studies were eventually approved. Most of the problems encountered were easily overcome and might have been avoided if the general practitioners undertaking the research had been able to seek advice from those with experience of research in general practice and in particular of the ethical issues involved. Local ethical committees for general practice, made up largely of general practitioners but with at least one lay member, might provide one such source of advice.
Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are becoming increasingly common in environmental health research. Like all studies involving human subjects, environmental health RCTs raise many different ethical issues, ranging from obtaining informed consent, to minimizing risks, to protecting privacy and confidentiality. One of the most important issues raised by these studies is whether it is ethical to withhold effective environmental health interventions from research subjects in order to satisfy scientific objectives. Although environmental health investigators usually do not have professional obligations to provide medical care to research subjects, they have ethical obligations to avoid exploiting them. Withholding interventions from research subjects can be ethical, provided that it does not lead to exploitation of individuals or groups. To avoid exploiting individuals or groups, investigators should ensure that research subjects and study populations receive a fair share of the benefits of research.
HIV prevention research has been fraught with ethical concerns since its inception. These concerns were highlighted during HIV vaccine research and have been elaborated in microbicide research. A host of unique ethical concerns pervade the microbicide research process from trial design to post-trial microbicide availability. Given the urgency of research and development in the face of the devastating HIV pandemic, these ethical concerns represent an enormous challenge for investigators, sponsors and Research Ethics Committees (RECs) both locally and internationally.
Ethical concerns relating to safety in microbicide research are a major international concern. However, in the urgency to develop a medically efficacious microbicide, some of these concerns may not have been anticipated. In the risk-benefit assessment of research protocols, both medical and psycho-social risk must be considered. In this paper four main areas that have a potential for medical and/or psycho-social harm are examined. Male partner involvement is controversial in the setting of covert use of microbicides. However, given the long-term exposure of men to experimental products, this may be methodologically, ethically and legally important. Covert use of microbicides may impact negatively on relationship dynamics leading to psychosocial harm to varying extents. The unexpectedly high rates of pregnancy during clinical trials raise important methodological and ethical concerns. Enrollment of adolescents without parental consent generates ethical and legal concerns that must be carefully considered by RECs and trial sites. Finally, paradoxical outcomes in recent trials internationally have advanced the debate on the nature of informed consent and responsibility of researchers to participants who become HIV positive during or after trials.
Phase 3 microbicide trials are an undisputed research and ethical priority in developing countries. However, such trials must be conducted with attention to both methodological and ethical detail. It is imperative that guidelines are formulated to ensure that high ethical standards are maintained despite the scientific urgency of microbicide development. Given the controversy raised by emergent ethical issues during the course of microbicide development, it is important that international consensus is reached amongst the various ethics and regulatory agencies in developing and developed countries alike.
Many ethical concerns revolve around the four basic principles of research: merit and integrity, respect for human beings, weighting of risk–benefit and justice. These principles form the basis for any discussion concerning human research ethics and are applicable to all areas of research including acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. World Health Organisation document, Guidelines for Clinical Research on Acupuncture, states that ‘consideration should be given to the different value systems that are involved in human rights such as social, cultural and historical issues’ and that ‘further studies should be conducted in relation to ethical issues involved in clinical research on acupuncture’. In addition to outlining the four basic principles, this paper will also examine the effect of Asian culture on Western human research ethics and how this may impact upon issues such as informed consent and weighting of risk–benefit.
acupuncture; Chinese medicine; culture; ethics; human research