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
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Adherence to ethical principles in clinical research and practice is becoming topical issue in China, where the prevalence of mental illness is rising, but treatment facilities remain underdeveloped. This paper reports on a study aiming to understand the ethical knowledge and attitudes of Chinese mental health professionals in relation to the process of diagnosis and treatment, informed consent, and privacy protection in clinical trials.
A self-administered survey was completed by 1110 medical staff recruited from Shanghai’s 22 psychiatric hospitals. Simple random selection methods were used to identify target individuals from the computerized registry of staff.
The final sample for analysis consisted 1094 medical staff (including 523 doctors, 542 nurses, 8 pharmacologists and 21 other staff). The majority reported that their medical institutions had not established an Ethics Committee (87.8%) and agreed that Ethics Committees should be set up in their institutions (72.9%). Approximately half (52%) had not received systematic education in ethics, and almost all (89.1%) of the staff thought it was necessary. Nearly all participants (90.0%) knew the Shanghai Mental Health Regulations which was the first local regulations relating to mental health in China, but only 11% and 16.6% respectively knew of the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki. About half (51.8%) thought that the guardian should make the decision as to whether the patient participated in clinical trials or not.
The study indicates that most psychiatric hospitals in Shanghai have no Medical Ethics Committee. More than half the medical staff had not received systematic education and training in medical ethics and they have insufficient knowledge of the ethical issues related to clinical practice and trials. Training in ethics is recommended for medical staff during their training and as ongoing professional development.
Psychiatric hospital; Bioethics; Hospital Ethics Committees; Health Care Surveys; China
Ontologies describe reality in specific domains in ways that can bridge various disciplines and languages. They allow easier access and integration of information that is collected by different groups. Ontologies are currently used in the biomedical sciences, geography, and law. A Biomedical Ethics Ontology (BMEO) would benefit members of ethics committees who deal with protocols and consent forms spanning numerous fields of inquiry. There already exists the Ontology for Biomedical Investigations (OBI); the proposed BMEO would interoperate with OBI, creating a powerful information tool. We define a domain ontology and begin to construct a BMEO, focused on the process of evaluating human research protocols. Finally, we show how our BMEO can have practical applications for ethics committees. This paper describes ongoing research and a strategy for its broader continuation and cooperation.
ontology; taxonomy; ethics committee review; automation; semantics
Many studies have been published about ethics committees and the clarifications requested about the submitted applications. In Finland, ethics committees require a separate statement on ethical aspects of the research in applications to the ethics committee. However, little is known about how researchers consider the ethical aspects of their own studies.
The data were collected from all the applications received by the official regional ethics committee in the Hospital District of Northern Savo during 2004–2009 (n = 688). These included a total of 56 studies involving research on tissue other than blood. The statements by the researchers about the ethics about their own research in these applications were analyzed by thematic content analysis under the following themes: recruitment, informed consent, risks and benefits, confidentiality and societal meaning.
The researchers tended to describe recruitment and informed consent process very briefly. Usually these descriptions simply stated who the recruiter was and that written consent would be required. There was little information provided on the recruitment situation and on how the study recruiters would be informed. Although most of the studies were clinical, the possibility was hardly ever discussed that patients could fail to distinguish between care and research.
The written guidelines, available on the webpages of the ethics committee, do not seem to be enough to help researchers achieve this goal. In addition to detailed guidelines for researchers, investigators need to be taught to appreciate the ethical aspects in their own studies.
Thematic content analysis; Ethical views of scientists; Application to ethics committee; Informed consent; Recruitment
With the advent of multicentre research ethics committees in the UK, local research ethics committees (LRECs) are required to advise only on issues relating to the local acceptability of a project. We looked at the handling of two commercially sponsored studies, one initiated before the change and one after, confining the analysis to 21 LRECs approached in both. As judged by the amount of paper per application, the new system for LRECs is simpler and should be less costly. However, there was an increasing tendency for LRECs to charge for their services (30% study 1, 47% study 2) and these charges varied by more than 400%. If such fees must be levied, a common scale is desirable.
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.
Inner-city health research can be challenging because it deals wit vulnerable populations and sometimes puts investigators in difficult situations. Some challenges are methodological, including selecting the optimal research design, implementing effective methods of recruitment and retention, and determining the best approach to data analysis. Other issues are practical, including addressing potential biases in social research; dealing with conflicting research agendas among investigators, community agencies, and funding agencies; and disseminating research findings effectively. Another set of issues relates to the ethical conduct of, research, including ensuring privacy, maintaining confidentiality, and obtaining consent that is informed, not coerced, and not influenced by undue inducements. Throughout the research endeavor, the inner-city health researcher must carefully balance the roles of investigator, advocate, activist, and caregiver.
Health research is a moral duty because it is the foundation for evidence-based care by all health care practitioners. Specific Canadian policies and regulations govern the conduct of human research; ethics review of research is required before research is conducted. Research in children poses important challenges with regard to informed consent and assent, vulnerability and potential conflicts of interest (COI). Paediatric health researchers should advocate for research participation by children, while being attentive to mitigating risks.
Children; Ethics; Research
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
Medical research involving human subjects raises complex ethical, legal and social issues. Investigators sometimes find that their obligations with respect to a research project come into conflict with their obligations to individual patients. The ethical conduct of research rests on 3 guiding principles: respect for persons, beneficience, and justice. Respect for persons underlies the duty to obtain informed consent from study participants. Beneficence demands a favourable balance between the potential benefits and harms of participation. Justice requires that vulnerable people not be exploited and that eligible candidates who may benefit from participation not be excluded without good cause. Studies must be designed in a way that ensures the validity of findings and must address questions of sufficient importance to justify the risks of participation. In any clinical trial there must be genuine uncertainty as to which treatment arm offers the most benefit, and placebo controls should not be used if effective standard therapies exist. Researchers have a responsibility to inform themselves about the ethical, legal and policy standards that govern their activities. When difficulties arise, they should consult the existing literature and seek the advice of experts in research ethics.
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.
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
OBJECTIVES: To show that a Local Research Ethics Committee (LREC) can carry out an audit of ethical standards in research. To find out if a researcher met certain ethical standards in recruiting subjects for clinical trials and in obtaining their consent. DESIGN: Postal questionnaire. SETTING: Clinical research by one doctor during one year. SUBJECTS: Eleven patients entered in clinical trials. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Success in ethics committee obtaining data. Achievement of ethical standards in recruitment of subjects and in obtaining consent. RESULTS: The audit was successfully carried out and standards were partly met. CONCLUSIONS: Local Research Ethics Committees can carry out audits of the conduct of research projects which they have approved. Provision for possible audits can be made at the time of application to the committee. Our committee thought the ethical standards in the research which we audited were acceptable.
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.
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.