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1.  Ethical issues posed by cluster randomized trials in health research 
Trials  2011;12:100.
The cluster randomized trial (CRT) is used increasingly in knowledge translation research, quality improvement research, community based intervention studies, public health research, and research in developing countries. However, cluster trials raise difficult ethical issues that challenge researchers, research ethics committees, regulators, and sponsors as they seek to fulfill responsibly their respective roles. Our project will provide a systematic analysis of the ethics of cluster trials. Here we have outlined a series of six areas of inquiry that must be addressed if the cluster trial is to be set on a firm ethical foundation:
1. Who is a research subject?
2. From whom, how, and when must informed consent be obtained?
3. Does clinical equipoise apply to CRTs?
4. How do we determine if the benefits outweigh the risks of CRTs?
5. How ought vulnerable groups be protected in CRTs?
6. Who are gatekeepers and what are their responsibilities?
Subsequent papers in this series will address each of these areas, clarifying the ethical issues at stake and, where possible, arguing for a preferred solution. Our hope is that these papers will serve as the basis for the creation of international ethical guidelines for the design and conduct of cluster randomized trials.
PMCID: PMC3107798  PMID: 21507237
2.  At What Level of Collective Equipoise Does a Randomized Clinical Trial Become Ethical for the Members of Institutional Review Board/Ethical Committees? 
Acta Informatica Medica  2013;21(3):156-159.
The conduct of a randomized controlled trial (RCT) is deemed ethical only if we are in state of “equipoise” as to which treatment would be most beneficial for the patients. Individual equipoise applies to an individual clinician or a member of ethical, institutional review board (IRB), whilst collective equipoise refers to the profession as a whole. It is argued that physicians are not bound by the equipoise but their actions are directed by the confines of the expert opinion. Experts can agree or disagree in various proportions on the merit of a given treatment. Hence, the collective equipoise will be often incomplete. In turn, the opinions of content expert in the field of the proposed trial influence the IRB members’ decision regarding trial approval.
We conducted a survey of IRB members at University of South Florida and the IRB members attending the bioethics conference organized in Clearwater, Florida, USA. The survey was made available as hard copy (paper based) and included six hypothetical scenarios outlining clinical trials targeted at measuring the collective equipoise. We defined the collective equipoise as the situation when survey participants were equally split (50:50) in their decision regarding whether a proposed clinical trial would be ethical to conduct. The opinion of 100 experts in the field expressed as proportion of experts favoring treatment A vs. B in each of the five scenarios was made available to the participants.
The response rate of our survey was 33% (71/218). Fifty percent of the IRB members would approve an RCT addressing the efficacy of two drugs for the management of headache even if 80% of experts favor one treatment over another (median: 80%; third quartile: 80%). Similarly, half of participating IRB members would approve the study when the median distribution of equipoise among experts was 70% (70 in favor of treatment A vs. 30 in favor of treatment B) for treatment of leukemia, 60% for treatment of geriatric patients and 70% for treatment of newborns. Half of IRB members would approve the study when the median distribution of equipoise among experts was 70% for treatment for leukemia in dogs and 85% for leukemia in rats (and 25% of IRB members would approve such a study even if 100% of experts favors one treatment over another). None of the demographic features of respondents affected collective equipoise.
This is the first study assessing collective equipoise among ethical committee/IRB members. Our study findings show that IRB members perceived that conduct of a trial enrolling humans is unethical when the equipoise level is beyond 80% (80:20 distribution of uncertainty). IRB members require a higher level of equipoise when it comes to testing a new drug in humans than in animals. A relatively high level of equipoise is needed for IRB members to be comfortable to approve trials involving life-threatening situations, children and elderly patients.
PMCID: PMC3804473  PMID: 24167382
randomized controlled trial; ethics; Ethical committees.
3.  Who is the research subject in cluster randomized trials in health research? 
Trials  2011;12:183.
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.
PMCID: PMC3162904  PMID: 21791064
4.  When is informed consent required in cluster randomized trials in health research? 
Trials  2011;12:202.
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.
PMCID: PMC3184061  PMID: 21906277
5.  Variability in research ethics review of cluster randomized trials: a scenario-based survey in three countries 
Trials  2014;15:48.
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.
PMCID: PMC3925119  PMID: 24495542
Cluster randomized trials; Informed consent; Research ethics guidelines; Research ethics review; Web-based survey
6.  Uncertainty and Equipoise: At Interplay Between Epistemology, Decision-Making and Ethics 
In recent years, various authors have proposed that the concept of equipoise be abandoned since it conflates the practice of clinical care with clinical research. At the same time, the equipoise opponents acknowledge the necessity of clinical research if there are unresolved uncertainties about the effects of proposed healthcare interventions. Since equipoise represents just one measure of uncertainty, proposals to abandon equipoise while maintaining a requirement for addressing uncertainties are contradictory and ultimately not valid. As acknowledgment and articulation of uncertainties represent key scientific and moral requirements for human experimentation, the concept of equipoise remains the most useful framework to link the theory of human experimentation with the theory of rational choice. In this paper, I show how uncertainty (equipoise) is at the intersection between epistemology, decision-making and ethics of clinical research. In particular, I show how our formulation of responses to uncertainties of hoped-for benefits and unknown harms of testing is a function of the way humans cognitively process information. This approach is based on the view that considerations of ethics and rationality cannot be separated. I analyze the response to uncertainties as it relates to the dual-processing theory, which postulates that rational approach to (clinical research) decision-making depends both on analytical, deliberative processes embodied in scientific method (system II) and “good” human intuition (system I). Ultimately, our choices can only become wiser if we understand a close and intertwined relationship between irreducible uncertainty, inevitable errors, and unavoidable injustice.
PMCID: PMC3183244  PMID: 21817885
Clinical Equipoise; Informed Consent; Clinical Research; Research Ethics
7.  Logistic, ethical, and political dimensions of stepped wedge trials: critical review and case studies 
Trials  2015;16:351.
Three arguments are usually invoked in favour of stepped wedge cluster randomised controlled trials: the logistic convenience of implementing an intervention in phases, the ethical benefit of providing the intervention to all clusters, and the potential to enhance the social acceptability of cluster randomised controlled trials. Are these alleged benefits real? We explored the logistic, ethical, and political dimensions of stepped wedge trials using case studies of six recent evaluations.
We identified completed or ongoing stepped wedge evaluations using two systematic reviews. We then purposively selected six with a focus on public health in high, middle, and low-income settings. We interviewed their authors about the logistic, ethical, and social issues faced by their teams. Two authors reviewed interview transcripts, identified emerging issues through qualitative thematic analysis, reflected upon them in the context of the literature, and invited all participants to co-author the manuscript.
Our analysis raises three main points. First, the phased implementation of interventions can alleviate problems linked to simultaneous roll-out, but also brings new challenges. Issues to consider include the feasibility of organising intervention activities according to a randomised sequence, estimating time lags in implementation and effects, and accommodating policy changes during the trial period. Second, stepped wedge trials, like parallel cluster trials, require equipoise: without it, randomising participants to a control condition, even for a short time, remains problematic. In stepped wedge trials, equipoise is likely to lie in the degree of effect, effectiveness in a specific operational milieu, and the balance of benefit and harm, including the social value of better evaluation. Third, the strongest arguments for a stepped wedge design are logistic and political rather than ethical. The design is advantageous when simultaneous roll-out is impractical and when it increases the acceptability of using counterfactuals.
The logistic convenience of phased implementation is context-dependent, and may be vitiated by the additional requirements of phasing. The potential for stepped wedge trials to enhance the social acceptability of cluster randomised trials is real, but their ethical legitimacy still rests on demonstrating equipoise and its configuration for each research question and setting.
PMCID: PMC4538739  PMID: 26278521
Stepped wedge trials; Ethics; Methodology; Public health
8.  The Paradox of Equipoise: The Principle That Drives and Limits Therapeutic Discoveries in Clinical Research 
Progress in clinical medicine relies on the willingness of patients to take part in experimental clinical trials, particularly randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Before agreeing to enroll in clinical trials, patients require guarantees that they will not knowingly be harmed and will have the best possible chances of receiving the most favorable treatments. This guarantee is provided by the acknowledgment of uncertainty (equipoise), which removes ethical dilemmas and makes it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials.
Since the design of clinical trials is mostly affected by clinical equipoise, the “clinical equipoise hypothesis” has been postulated. If the uncertainty requirement holds, this means that investigators cannot predict what they are going to discover in any individual trial that they undertake. In some instances, new treatments will be superior to standard treatments, while in others, standard treatments will be superior to experimental treatments, and in still others, no difference will be detected between new and standard treatments. It is hypothesized that there must be a relationship between the overall pattern of treatment successes and the uncertainties that RCTs are designed to address.
An analysis of published trials shows that the results cannot be predicted at the level of individual trials. However, the results also indicate that the overall pattern of discovery of treatment success across a series of trials is predictable and is consistent with clinical equipoise hypothesis. The analysis shows that we can discover no more than 25% to 50% of successful treatments when they are tested in RCTs. The analysis also indicates that this discovery rate is optimal in helping to preserve the clinical trial system; a high discovery rate (eg, a 90% to 100% probability of success) is neither feasible nor desirable since under these circumstances, neither the patient nor the researcher has an interest in randomization. This in turn would halt the RCT system as we know it.
The “principle or law of clinical discovery” described herein predicts the efficiency of the current system of RCTs at generating discoveries of new treatments. The principle is derived from the requirement for uncertainty or equipoise as a precondition for RCTs, the precept that paradoxically drives discoveries of new treatments while limiting the proportion and rate of new therapeutic discoveries.
PMCID: PMC2782889  PMID: 19910921
9.  At what level of collective equipoise does a clinical trial become ethical? 
Journal of Medical Ethics  1991;17(1):30-34.
It has often been argued that if a clinician cannot decide which of two treatments to offer, a trial may be ethical, but it is unethical if she/he has a preference. Since individual clinicians usually have a preference, most trials could be judged unethical according to this line of argument. A recent important article in the New England Journal of Medicine argued that individual preferences are not as important as the collective uncertainty of informed clinicians. If clinicians are equally divided, there is a state of collective equipoise and a trial is ethical. However, clinicians will seldom be exactly equally divided. We conducted an ethometric study to find out how much collective equipoise can be disturbed before the potential subjects in a trial think that it is unethical. Half of our subjects perceived a trial as unethical when equipoise was disturbed beyond 70:30. In other words, when 70 per cent of experts favour one treatment, 50 per cent of subjects would prefer that treatment to be administered rather than subjected to critical assessment. When equipoise is disturbed beyond 80:20, less than 3 per cent of subjects would consider human trials morally justifiable.
PMCID: PMC1375968  PMID: 2033628
10.  Should desperate volunteers be included in randomised controlled trials? 
Journal of Medical Ethics  2006;32(9):548-553.
Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) sometimes recruit participants who are desperate to receive the experimental treatment. This paper defends the practice against three arguements that suggest it is unethical first, desperate volunteers are not in equipoise. Second clinicians, entering patients onto trials are disavowing their therapeutic obligation to deliver the best treatment; they are following trial protocols rather than delivering individualised care. Research is not treatment; its ethical justification is different. Consent is crucial. Third, desperate volunteers do not give proper consent: effectively, they are coerced. This paper responds by advocating a notion of equipoise based on expert knowledge and widely shared values. Where such collective, expert equipoise exists there is a prima facie case for an RCT. Next the paper argues that trial entry does not involve clinicians disavowing their therapeutic obligation; individualised care based on insufficient evidence is not in patients best interest. Finally, it argues that where equipoise exists it is acceptable to limit access to experimental agents; desperate volunteers are not coerced because their desperation does not translate into a right to receive what they desire.
PMCID: PMC2563406  PMID: 16943339
11.  Randomisation and resource allocation: a missed opportunity for evaluating health care and social interventions 
Journal of Medical Ethics  2000;26(5):319-322.
Equipoise is widely regarded to be an essential prerequisite for the ethical conduct of a randomised controlled trial. There are some circumstances however, under which it is acceptable to conduct a randomised controlled trial (RCT) in the absence of equipoise. Limited access to the preferred intervention is one such circumstance. In this paper we present an example of a randomised trial in which access to the preferred intervention, preschool education, was severely limited by resource constraints. The ethical issues that arise when conducting randomised trials in health care are considered in the context of trials of social interventions. In health, education and social welfare, effective interventions are frequently limited due to budgetary constraints. Explicit acknowledgement of the need to ration interventions, and the use of random allocation to do this even in the absence of equipoise, would facilitate learning more about the effects of these interventions.
Key Words: Randomised controlled trials • equipoise • rationing • preschool
PMCID: PMC1733281  PMID: 11055032
12.  The ethics of future trials: qualitative analysis of physicians’ decision making 
Trials  2016;17:12.
The decision to conduct a randomized controlled trial (RCT) in a field raises ethical as well as scientific issues. From the clinical equipoise literature, future trials are justifiable if there is ”honest, professional disagreement in the community of expert practitioners as to the preferred treatment”. Empirical data are sparse about how clinicians apply the principles of equipoise to the justification of future RCTs. For example, selective decontamination of the digestive tract (SDD) is not widely used in critical care practice despite the strength of the evidence base and therefore provides a unique opportunity to learn how clinicians think about the ethics of further RCTs in critical care.
In an international interview study of views of healthcare professionals about SDD, we undertook a secondary analysis of qualitative data collected using a Theoretical Domains Framework of clinical behaviour. We adopted a general descriptive approach to explore how physicians determined whether another RCT of SDD is ethical. Following a constant comparison approach, three investigators reviewed 54 purposively chosen transcripts from three international regions. We interpreted the data using thematic analysis.
We grouped participants’ responses into four inter-related themes: 1) cultural norms about evidence and practice within healthcare; 2) personal views about what evidence is current or applicable; 3) the interpersonal and relational nature of professional decision making locally; and 4) an a priori commitment to future trials. The analysis also identified several unresolved tensions regarding when a future RCT should be pursued. These tensions focused on a clash between potential benefits to current individual patients and potential future harms to patients more broadly.
Our study suggests that ethical decision making about future RCTs in the field of SDD does not rely strongly on appeals to evidence, even when the quality of the evidence is reasonably high. Rather, “extra-evidential” reasons, including social, professional, and relational factors, seem to influence opinions regarding the ethics of future trials. Further work is required to see if these conclusions are applicable to other clinical topics and settings.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s13063-015-1137-8) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4704430  PMID: 26739307
Ethics; Clinical equipoise; Harm-benefit analysis; Critical care; Evidence-based medicine; Qualitative research; Randomized controlled trials
13.  Researchers’ perceptions of ethical challenges in cluster randomized trials: a qualitative analysis 
Trials  2013;14:1.
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.
PMCID: PMC3561139  PMID: 23286245
Cluster randomized trials; Research ethics; Informed consent; Clinical trials; Bioethics; Knowledge translation; Quality improvement; Implementation research
14.  Equipoise as a means of managing uncertainty: personal, communal and proxy. 
Journal of Medical Ethics  1996;22(3):135-139.
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.
PMCID: PMC1376976  PMID: 8798934
15.  The need to balance merits and limitations from different disciplines when considering the stepped wedge cluster randomized trial design 
Various papers have addressed pros and cons of the stepped wedge cluster randomized trial design (SWD). However, some issues have not or only limitedly been addressed. Our aim was to provide a comprehensive overview of all merits and limitations of the SWD to assist researchers, reviewers and medical ethics committees when deciding on the appropriateness of the SWD for a particular study.
We performed an initial search to identify articles with a methodological focus on the SWD, and categorized and discussed all reported advantages and disadvantages of the SWD. Additional aspects were identified during multidisciplinary meetings in which ethicists, biostatisticians, clinical epidemiologists and health economists participated. All aspects of the SWD were compared to the parallel group cluster randomized design. We categorized the merits and limitations of the SWD to distinct phases in the design and conduct of such studies, highlighting that their impact may vary depending on the context of the study or that benefits may be offset by drawbacks across study phases. Furthermore, a real-life illustration is provided.
New aspects are identified within all disciplines. Examples of newly identified aspects of an SWD are: the possibility to measure a treatment effect in each cluster to examine the (in)consistency in effects across clusters, the detrimental effect of lower than expected inclusion rates, deviation from the ordinary informed consent process and the question whether studies using the SWD are likely to have sufficient social value. Discussions are provided on e.g. clinical equipoise, social value, health economical decision making, number of study arms, and interim analyses.
Deciding on the use of the SWD involves aspects and considerations from different disciplines not all of which have been discussed before. Pros and cons of this design should be balanced in comparison to other feasible design options as to choose the optimal design for a particular intervention study.
PMCID: PMC4627408  PMID: 26514920
Epidemiologic research design; Stepped wedge design; Cluster randomized trial; Health economics; Research ethics; Biostatistics
16.  Equipoise, design bias, and randomized controlled trials: the elusive ethics of new drug development 
Arthritis Research & Therapy  2004;6(3):R250-R255.
The concept of 'equipoise', or the 'uncertainty principle', has been represented as a central ethical principle, and holds that a subject may be enrolled in a randomized controlled trial (RCT) only if there is true uncertainty about which of the trial arms is most likely to benefit the patient. We sought to estimate the frequency with which equipoise conditions were met in industry-sponsored RCTs in rheumatology, to explore the reasons for any deviations from equipoise, to examine the concept of 'design bias', and to consider alternative ethical formulations that might improve subject safety and autonomy. We studied abstracts accepted for the 2001 American College of Rheumatology meetings that reported RCTs, acknowledged industry sponsorship, and had clinical end-points (n = 45), and examined the proportion of studies that favored the registration or marketing of the sponsor's drug. In every trial (45/45) results were favorable to the sponsor, indicating that results could have been predicted in advance solely by knowledge of sponsorship (P < 0.0001). Equipoise clearly was being systematically violated. Publication bias appeared to be an incomplete explanation for this dramatic result; this bias occurs after a study is completed. Rather, we hypothesize that 'design bias', in which extensive preliminary data are used to design studies with a high likelihood of being positive, is the major cause of the asymmetric results. Design 'bias' occurs before the trial is begun and is inconsistent with the equipoise principle. However, design bias increases scientific efficiency, decreases drug development costs, and limits the number of subjects required, probably reducing aggregate risks to participants. Conceptual and ethical issues were found with the equipoise principle, which encourages performance of negative studies; ignores patient values, patient autonomy, and social benefits; is applied at a conceptually inappropriate decision point (after randomization rather than before); and is in conflict with the Belmont, Nuremberg, and other sets of ethical principles, as well as with US Food and Drug Administration procedures. We propose a principle of 'positive expected outcomes', which informs the assessment that a trial is ethical, together with a restatement of the priority of personal autonomy.
PMCID: PMC416446  PMID: 15142271
design bias; ethical principles; equipoise; expected outcomes; randomized controlled trials
17.  Time to be BRAVE: is educating surgeons the key to unlocking the potential of randomised clinical trials in surgery? A qualitative study 
Trials  2014;15:80.
Well-designed randomised clinical trials (RCTs) provide the best evidence to inform decision-making and should be the default option for evaluating surgical procedures. Such trials can be challenging, and surgeons’ preferences may influence whether trials are initiated and successfully conducted and their results accepted. Preferences are particularly problematic when surgeons’ views play a key role in procedure selection and patient eligibility. The bases of such preferences have rarely been explored. Our aim in this qualitative study was to investigate surgeons’ preferences regarding the feasibility of surgical RCTs and their understanding of study design issues using breast reconstruction surgery as a case study.
Semistructured qualitative interviews were undertaken with a purposive sample of 35 professionals practicing at 15 centres across the United Kingdom. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed thematically using constant comparative techniques. Sampling, data collection and analysis were conducted concurrently and iteratively until data saturation was achieved.
Surgeons often struggle with the concept of equipoise. We found that if surgeons did not feel ‘in equipoise’, they did not accept randomisation as a method of treatment allocation. The underlying reasons for limited equipoise were limited appreciation of the methodological weaknesses of data derived from nonrandomised studies and little understanding of pragmatic trial design. Their belief in the value of RCTs for generating high-quality data to change or inform practice was not widely held.
There is a need to help surgeons understand evidence, equipoise and bias. Current National Institute of Health Research/Medical Research Council investment into education and infrastructure for RCTs, combined with strong leadership, may begin to address these issues or more specific interventions may be required.
PMCID: PMC4003809  PMID: 24628821
Breast reconstruction; Education; Methodology; Qualitative; Randomised clinical trials
18.  Challenges of clinical trial design when there is lack of clinical equipoise: use of a response-conditional crossover design 
Journal of Neurology  2011;259(2):348-352.
Clinical equipoise is widely accepted as the basis of ethics in clinical research and requires investigators to be uncertain of the relative therapeutic merits of trial comparators. When clinical equipoise is in question, innovative trial designs are needed to reduce ethical tension while satisfying regulators’ requirements. We report a novel response-conditional crossover study design used in a Phase 3, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of intravenous 10% caprylate-chromatography purified immunoglobulin for chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy. During the initial 24-week period, patients crossed over to the alternative treatment at the first sign of deterioration or if they failed to improve or were unable to maintain improvement at any time after 6 weeks. This trial design addressed concerns about lack of equipoise raised by physicians interested in trial participation and proved acceptable to regulatory authorities. The trial design may be applicable to other studies where clinical equipoise is in question.
PMCID: PMC3268968  PMID: 21822934
Clinical equipoise; Crossover trial; Trial design; Response-conditional; Intravenous immunoglobulin
19.  What is the role and authority of gatekeepers in cluster randomized trials in health research? 
Trials  2012;13:116.
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.
PMCID: PMC3443001  PMID: 22834691
Pediatric Critical Care Medicine  2009;10(4):431-438.
There is a commonly held belief that randomized, placebo-controlled trials in pediatric critical care should incorporate “rescue” therapy (open-label administration of active drug) when a child’s condition is deteriorating. The ethical, conceptual and analytic challenges related to “rescue” therapy in randomized trials can be misrepresented.
Narrative review.
The ethical basis of “rescue” therapy, the equipoise concept, and intention-to-treat analysis are examined in the setting of a hypothetical randomized trial comparing corticosteroids versus placebo in pediatric septic shock.
The perceived need for “rescue” therapy may be partly motivated by the moral imperative to save a child’s life. However, allowing “rescue” therapy in a trial is misconceived and inconsistent with equipoise regarding the efficacy of the study drug. If “rescue” therapy is permitted, intention-to-treat analysis can only compare immediate versus delayed use of the study drug. When “rescue” therapy is beneficial, the observed treatment effect is substantially diminished from true effect of the study drug, leading to increased sample size and thereby placing more children at risk (18 “excess” placebo-arm deaths occur in our hypothetical example). Analysis of a trial incorporating “rescue” therapy cannot definitively assess overall efficacy of the agent, or distinguish beneficial or harmful treatment effects related to timing of drug use.
While a “rescue” therapy component in a randomized trial may be perceived as ethically desirable, inconsistency of “rescue” therapy with full equipoise may itself raise significant ethical concerns. Increased sample sizes expose more children to the risks of study participation, including death. Researchers should be aware that clinical trials designed with “rescue” therapy cannot definitively determine the beneficial or harmful effects of a treatment per se, and can only assess the effects of delayed versus immediate provision of the treatment.
PMCID: PMC3259684  PMID: 19307815
clinical trials, randomized; critical care; corticosterone; equipoise; ethics; placebos; shock; septic; rescue therapy
21.  Refuting the net risks test: a response to Wendler and Miller's “Assessing research risks systematically” 
Journal of Medical Ethics  2007;33(8):487-490.
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.
PMCID: PMC2598154  PMID: 17664311
benefit‐harm analysis; clinical research; component analysis; research ethics; research ethics committee
22.  Electronic search strategies to identify reports of cluster randomized trials in MEDLINE: low precision will improve with adherence to reporting standards 
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 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.
PMCID: PMC2833170  PMID: 20158899
23.  Choosing a control intervention for a randomised clinical trial 
Randomised controlled clinical trials are performed to resolve uncertainty concerning comparator interventions. Appropriate acknowledgment of uncertainty enables the concurrent achievement of two goals : the acquisition of valuable scientific knowledge and an optimum treatment choice for the patient-participant. The ethical recruitment of patients requires the presence of clinical equipoise. This involves the appropriate choice of a control intervention, particularly when unapproved drugs or innovative interventions are being evaluated.
We argue that the choice of a control intervention should be supported by a systematic review of the relevant literature and, where necessary, solicitation of the informed beliefs of clinical experts through formal surveys and publication of the proposed trial's protocol.
When clinical equipoise is present, physicians may confidently propose trial enrollment to their eligible patients as an act of therapeutic beneficence.
PMCID: PMC165581  PMID: 12709266
24.  Cost-effectiveness of cardiac resynchronisation therapy for patients with moderate-to-severe heart failure: a lifetime Markov model 
BMJ Open  2011;1(2):e000276.
To assess the cost-effectiveness of cardiac resynchronisation therapy (CRT) both with CRT-P (biventricular pacemaker only) and with CRT-D (biventricular pacemaker with defibrillator) in patients with New York Heart Association (NYHA) functional class III/IV from a Belgian healthcare-payer perspective.
A lifetime Markov model was designed to calculate the cost–utility of both interventions. In the reference case, the treatment effect was based on the Comparison of Medical Therapy, Pacing and Defibrillation in Heart Failure trial. Costs were based on real-world data. Pharmacoeconomic guidelines were applied, including probabilistic modelling and sensitivity analyses.
Compared with optimal medical treatment, on average 1.31 quality-adjusted life-years (QALY) are gained with CRT-P at an additional cost of €14 700, resulting in an incremental cost-effectiveness ratio (ICER) of about €11 200/QALY. As compared with CRT-P, CRT-D treatment adds on average an additional 0.55 QALYs at an extra cost of €30 900 resulting in an ICER of €57 000/QALY. This result was very sensitive to the incremental clinical benefit of the defibrillator function on top of CRT.
Based on efficiency arguments, CRT-P can be recommended for NYHA class III and IV patients if there is a willingness to pay more than €11 000/QALY. Even though CRT-D may offer a survival benefit over CRT-P, the incremental clinical benefit appears to be too marginal to warrant a threefold-higher device price for CRT-D. Further clinical research should focus on the added value of CRT-D over CRT-P.
Article summary
Article focus
To assess the cost-effectiveness of cardiac resynchronisation therapy (CRT) both with CRT-P (biventricular pacemaker only) and with CRT-D (biventricular pacemaker with defibrillator).
Key messages
CRT-P can be recommended for reimbursement for New York Heart Association class III and IV patients if there is a willingness to pay more than €11 000/quality-adjusted life-year.
Current evidence is insufficient to show the superiority of CRT-D over CRT-P. With a threefold-higher device cost, CRT-D's cost-effectiveness is questionable.
Strengths and limitations
Hospital billing data of 342 Belgian CRT implantations were at our disposal for cost calculations.
The results of the Comparison of Medical Therapy, Pacing and Defibrillation in Heart Failure trial were used to model the treatment effect. This happens to be the only trial that compared CRT-P as well as CRT-D versus optimal pharmacological treatment, allowing an indirect comparison to be made between CRT-P and CRT-D.
Following health economic theory, CRT-D is compared with CRT-P, not with optimal pharmacological treatment (ie, working on the cost-efficiency frontier).
A direct estimate of the added value of CRT-D versus CRT-P in patients with moderate to severe heart failure is lacking. This may be an interesting topic for further research in a randomised controlled trial, especially because of the threefold higher price for a CRT-D device versus CRT-P.
Generic utility instruments to measure quality of life are not always used in clinical trials. To support economic evaluations, it would be useful to include more systematically a generic utility instrument in the study protocol.
PMCID: PMC3211050  PMID: 22021894
25.  Dual equipoise shared decision making: definitions for decision and behaviour support interventions 
There is increasing interest in interventions that can support patients who face difficult decisions and individuals who need to modify their behaviour to achieve better outcomes. Evidence for effectiveness is used to categorise patients care. Effective care is where evidence of benefit outweighs harm: patients should always receive this type of care, where indicated. Preference-sensitive care describes a situation where the evidence for the superiority of one treatment over another is either not available or does not allow differentiation; in this situation, there are two or more valid approaches, and the best choice depends on how individuals value the risks and benefits of treatments.
Preference-sensitive decisions are defined by equipoise: situations where options need to be deliberated. Moreover, where both healthcare professionals and patients agree that equipoise exists, situations may be regarded as having 'dual equipoise'. Such conditions are ideal for shared decision making. However, there are many situations in medicine where dual equipoise does not exist, where health professionals hold the view that scientific evidence for benefit strongly outweighs harm. This is often the case where people suffer from chronic conditions, and where behaviour change is recommended to improve outcomes. However, some patients, are either ambivalent or find it difficult to sustain optimal behaviours, i.e., patients will be in varying degrees of equipoise. Therefore, situations where dual equipoise exists (or not) help to clarify the definitions of two classes of support, namely, decision and behaviour change support interventions. Decision support interventions help people think about choices they face; they describe where and why choice exists, in short, conditions of dual equipoise; they provide information about options, including, where reasonable, the option of taking no action. These interventions help people to deliberate, independently or in collaboration with others, about options by considering relevant attributes; they support people to forecast how they might feel about short, intermediate, and long-term outcomes that have relevant consequences, in ways that help the process of constructing preferences and eventual decision making appropriate to their individual situation. Whereas, behavioural support interventions describe, justify, and recommend actions that, over time, lead to predictable outcomes over short, intermediate, and long-term timeframes, and that have relevant and important consequences for those who are considering behaviour change.
Decision and behaviour support interventions have divergent aims, different relationships to equipoise, and form two classes of interventions.
PMCID: PMC2784743  PMID: 19922647

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