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.
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.
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 CRT is to be set on a firm ethical foundation. This paper addresses the first of the questions posed, namely, who is the research subject in a CRT in health research? The identification of human research subjects is logically prior to the application of protections as set out in research ethics and regulation. Aspects of CRT design, including the fact that in a single study the units of randomization, experimentation, and observation may differ, complicate the identification of human research subjects. But the proper identification of human research subjects is important if they are to be protected from harm and exploitation, and if research ethics committees are to review CRTs efficiently.
We examine the research ethics literature and international regulations to identify the core features of human research subjects, and then unify these features under a single, comprehensive definition of human research subject. We define a human research subject as any person whose interests may be compromised as a result of interventions in a research study. Individuals are only human research subjects in CRTs if: (1) they are directly intervened upon by investigators; (2) they interact with investigators; (3) they are deliberately intervened upon via a manipulation of their environment that may compromise their interests; or (4) their identifiable private information is used to generate data. Individuals who are indirectly affected by CRT study interventions, including patients of healthcare providers participating in knowledge translation CRTs, are not human research subjects unless at least one of these conditions is met.
This article is part of a series of papers examining ethical issues in cluster randomized trials (CRTs) in health research. In the introductory paper in this series, 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.
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.
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.
The Nuremberg code defines the general ethical framework of medical research with participant consent as its cornerstone. In cluster randomized trials (CRT), obtaining participant informed consent raises logistic and methodologic concerns. First, with randomization of large clusters such as geographical areas, obtaining individual informed consent may be impossible. Second, participants in randomized clusters cannot avoid certain interventions, which implies that participant informed consent refers only to data collection, not administration of an intervention. Third, complete participant information may be a source of selection bias, which then raises methodological concerns. We assessed whether participant informed consent was required in such trials, which type of consent was required, and whether the trial was at risk of selection bias because of the very nature of participant information.
Methods and Findings
We systematically reviewed all reports of CRT published in MEDLINE in 2008 and surveyed corresponding authors regarding the nature of the informed consent and the process of participant inclusion. We identified 173 reports and obtained an answer from 113 authors (65.3%). In total, 23.7% of the reports lacked information on ethics committee approval or participant consent, 53.1% of authors declared that participant consent was for data collection only and 58.5% that the group allocation was not specified for participants. The process of recruitment (chronology of participant recruitment with regard to cluster randomization) was rarely reported, and we estimated that only 56.6% of the trials were free of potential selection bias.
For CRTs, the reporting of ethics committee approval and participant informed consent is less than optimal. Reports should describe whether participants consented for administration of an intervention and/or data collection. Finally, the process of participant recruitment should be fully described (namely, whether participants were informed of the allocation group before being recruited) for a better appraisal of the risk of selection bias.
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.
The pragmatic randomised controlled trial is widely regarded as the gold standard method for evaluating the effectiveness of health care interventions. Successful conduct of trials and generalisation of findings depends upon efficient recruitment of representative samples, which often requires the collaboration of 'gatekeepers' who mediate access to potential participants. Effective negotiation of gatekeeping is thus vital to process and outcomes of trials and the quality of evidence. Whilst relevant literature contains discussion of the problems of recruitment and gatekeeping, little is known about how recruitment can be optimised and factors leading to successful recruitment.
As practised researchers with first-hand experience of gatekeeping, we were aware that some researchers recruit more effectively than others and curious about the ingredients of success. With the goal of developing practical guidance, we conducted a series of workshops with 19 expert researchers to investigate and map successful recruitment. Workshops were digitally recorded and transcribed. Analysis of discussion supported modelling of effective recruitment as a process involving three phases, each comprising two key tasks. Successful negotiation of set-up, alliance, and exchange require judicious deployment of interpersonal skills in an appropriately assertive manner. Researcher flexibility and credibility are vital for success, such that a foundation for rapprochement between the worlds of research and practice is established.
Our model provides a framework to support design and implementation of recruitment activities and will enable trouble shooting and support recruitment, supervision and training of effective researchers. This, in turn will support delivery of trials on time and on budget, maximising return on investment in the production of evidence.
Pragmatic trials are central to development of evidence based health care but often failure to recruit the necessary sample in a timely manner means many fail or require costly extensions. Gatekeeping is implicated in this. Drawing on the knowledge of 19 expert researchers, we argue that successful researchers are resourceful and personable, judiciously deploying interpersonal skills and expertise to engage with gatekeepers and establish a shared objective. We propose that understanding recruitment as a phased process can enhance design and conduct of trials, supporting completion on time, on budget.
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.
This paper addresses the logistical challenges of implementing public health interventions in the setting of cluster randomized trials (CRTs), drawing on the experience of carrying out a CRT within a community-based health insurance (CBHI) scheme in rural India. Our CRT is seeking to improve the equity impact – i.e., reduce the differential in claims submission for hospitalization between poor and less poor – of this CBHI in rural areas. Five main challenges are identified and discussed: 1) assigning control clusters, 2) blinding, 3) implementing interventions simultaneously, 4) minimizing leakage, and 5) piggy-backing on a changing scheme. These challenges are not likely to be unique to low-income settings, although the fifth challenge is particularly likely when working with relatively small and resource-constrained programs. While compromises to methodological best-practice may reduce internal validity, they make the intervention more ‘real’, and potentially more applicable, to other programs and settings. Further, careful documentation of compromises allows them to be considered in the final analysis.
Cet article traite des difficultés logistiques rencontrées dans la mise en oeuvre d'interventions de santé publique dans le cadre d'essais contrôlés randomisés par grappes. Il tire les enseignements d'une expérience menée au sein d'un système d'assurance-santé communautaire dans une région rurale de l'Inde. Il s'agit d'une intervention randomisée par grappes qui a pour but d'améliorer l'équité du système, à savoir réduire l'écart entre les demandes de remboursement des frais d'hospitalisation soumises par les populations pauvres et moins pauvres. Cinq grandes difficultés sont présentées et discutées dans l'article : 1) la mise en place des groupes de contrôle, 2) la création des conditions d'un test en aveugle, 3) la simultanéité des interventions, 4) le risque de contamination entre les groupes et 5) l'implantation sur un dispositif connaissant des modifications. Ces problèmes ne sont pas propres au contexte des pays en développement, bien que le dernier soit plus courant dans le cas de petits programmes aux ressources limitées. Les concessions faites par rapport aux canons méthodologiques sont susceptibles de réduire la validité interne de l'étude, mais elles rendent l'intervention plus réaliste et potentiellement plus applicable à d'autres contextes. En outre, une documentation précise de ces compromis nous permet de les prendre en compte à la fin de l'analyse.
Health insurance; India; nongovernmental organizations; randomized controlled trials
Suicide is a significant public health problem worldwide that requires evidence-based prevention efforts. One approach to prevention is gatekeeper training. Gatekeeper training programs for community members have demonstrated positive changes in knowledge and attitudes about suicide. Changes in gatekeeper skills have not been well established.
To assess and predict the impact of a brief, gatekeeper training on community members’ observed skills.
Participants in a community gatekeeper training were employees at US universities. 50 participants were randomly selected for skills assessment and videotaped interacting with a standardized actor prior to and following training. Tapes were reliability rated for general and suicide-specific skills.
Gatekeeper skills increased from pre- to posttest: 10% of participants met criteria for acceptable gatekeeper skills before training, while 54% met criteria after training. Pretraining variables did not predict increased skills.
Results do not provide conclusions about the relationship between observed gatekeeper skills and actual use of those skills in the future.
Gatekeeper training enhances suicide-specific skills for the majority of participants. Other strategies, such as behavioral rehearsal, may be necessary to enhance skills in the remaining participants.
In this paper, we consider some of the challenges associated with the ethical need to conduct locally relevant international health research. We examine a cervical cancer research initiative in a resource-poor community in South Africa, and consider the extent to which this research was relevant to the expressed needs and concerns of community members. Results from informal discussions and a series of 27 focus groups conducted in the community provide insight into the community’s needs and concerns, and its recommendations for how the research could be made more relevant to the community. We discuss these findings in the context of recent theory and literature on the role of community engagement in promoting local relevance and responsiveness in community-based health research. We anticipate that the paper’s findings may help international health researchers better identify and assess the challenges of conducting locally relevant research across major global gaps in wealth and health.
International health research; Research ethics; Cervical cancer; Community health; South Africa; Community engagement
Attrition, which leads to missing data, is a common problem in cluster randomized trials (CRTs), where groups of patients rather than individuals are randomized. Standard multiple imputation (MI) strategies may not be appropriate to impute missing data from CRTs since they assume independent data. In this paper, under the assumption of missing completely at random and covariate dependent missing, we compared six MI strategies which account for the intra-cluster correlation for missing binary outcomes in CRTs with the standard imputation strategies and complete case analysis approach using a simulation study.
We considered three within-cluster and three across-cluster MI strategies for missing binary outcomes in CRTs. The three within-cluster MI strategies are logistic regression method, propensity score method, and Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) method, which apply standard MI strategies within each cluster. The three across-cluster MI strategies are propensity score method, random-effects (RE) logistic regression approach, and logistic regression with cluster as a fixed effect. Based on the community hypertension assessment trial (CHAT) which has complete data, we designed a simulation study to investigate the performance of above MI strategies.
The estimated treatment effect and its 95% confidence interval (CI) from generalized estimating equations (GEE) model based on the CHAT complete dataset are 1.14 (0.76 1.70). When 30% of binary outcome are missing completely at random, a simulation study shows that the estimated treatment effects and the corresponding 95% CIs from GEE model are 1.15 (0.76 1.75) if complete case analysis is used, 1.12 (0.72 1.73) if within-cluster MCMC method is used, 1.21 (0.80 1.81) if across-cluster RE logistic regression is used, and 1.16 (0.82 1.64) if standard logistic regression which does not account for clustering is used.
When the percentage of missing data is low or intra-cluster correlation coefficient is small, different approaches for handling missing binary outcome data generate quite similar results. When the percentage of missing data is large, standard MI strategies, which do not take into account the intra-cluster correlation, underestimate the variance of the treatment effect. Within-cluster and across-cluster MI strategies (except for random-effects logistic regression MI strategy), which take the intra-cluster correlation into account, seem to be more appropriate to handle the missing outcome from CRTs. Under the same imputation strategy and percentage of missingness, the estimates of the treatment effect from GEE and RE logistic regression models are similar.
There are a number of practical and ethical issues raised in school-based health research, particularly those related to obtaining consent from parents and assent from children. One approach to developing, strengthening, and supporting appropriate consent and assent processes is through community engagement. To date, much of the literature on community engagement in biomedical research has concentrated on community- or hospital-based research, with little documentation, if any, of community engagement in school-based health research. In this paper we discuss our experiences of consent, assent and community engagement in implementing a large school-based cluster randomized trial in rural Kenya.
Data collected as part of a qualitative study investigating the acceptability of the main trial, focus group discussions with field staff, observations of practice and authors’ experiences are used to: 1) highlight the challenges faced in obtaining assent/consent; and 2) strategies taken to try to both protect participant rights (including to refuse and to withdraw) and ensure the success of the trial.
Early meetings with national, district and local level stakeholders were important in establishing their co-operation and support for the project. Despite this support, both practical and ethical challenges were encountered during consenting and assenting procedures. Our strategy for addressing these challenges focused on improving communication and understanding of the trial, and maintaining dialogue with all the relevant stakeholders throughout the study period.
A range of stakeholders within and beyond schools play a key role in school based health trials. Community entry and information dissemination strategies need careful planning from the outset, and with on-going consultation and feedback mechanisms established in order to identify and address concerns as they arise. We believe our experiences, and the ethical and practical issues and dilemmas encountered, will be of interest for others planning to conduct school-based research in Africa.
National Institute of Health NCT00878007
Malaria; Cluster-randomized trial; Consent; Community engagement; School-based research; Kenya
The use of placebos in therapy or research poses ethical questions. What are the benefits and the costs in ethical terms of condoning deception of the patient or subject? What does the deception mean for the patient's or subject's right to give informed consent to his treatment?
Doctors are rightly expected to disclose to their patient facts which would in their judgement best enable him to give informed consent to treatment. On occasion, the degree of this disclosure may be limited by the need to avoid hazarding the success of treatment of an unstable patient whose condition threatens his life, but doctors should have no right to withhold information just to prevent a patient refusing consent to therapy. No such limitation should apply in experiments where full disclosure must operate to enable the subject to give his informed consent.
The potential medical benefits for the patient of placebo therapy have to be weighed against all the ethical costs of the deception and dishonesty involved, including the longer term repercussions on doctor/patient trust: similar ethical costs may arise in experiments involving the use of placebos without disclosure of this as a possibility to the subject. Deception is ethically degrading to both parties not only being a breach of trust, but denying the moral autonomy of the patient or subject to make his own choice.
The writer concludes that placebos should be used only with full disclosure and consent whether in therapy or in research, and that this need not impede the success of either.
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
Pediatric oncology has a strong research culture. Most pediatric oncologists are investigators, involved in clinical care as well as research. As a result, a remarkable proportion of children with cancer enrolls in a trial during treatment. This paper discusses the ethical consequences of the unprecedented integration of research and care in pediatric oncology from the perspective of parents and physicians.
An empirical ethical approach, combining (1) a narrative review of (primarily) qualitative studies on parents' and physicians' experiences of the pediatric oncology research practice, and (2) comparison of these experiences with existing theoretical ethical concepts about (pediatric) research. The use of empirical evidence enriches these concepts by taking into account the peculiarities that ethical challenges pose in practice.
Analysis of the 22 studies reviewed revealed that the integration of research and care has consequences for the informed consent process, the promotion of the child's best interests, and the role of the physician (doctor vs. scientist). True consent to research is difficult to achieve due to the complexity of research protocols, emotional stress and parents' dependency on their child's physician. Parents' role is to promote their child's best interests, also when they are asked to consider enrolling their child in a trial. Parents are almost never in equipoise on trial participation, which leaves them with the agonizing situation of wanting to do what is best for their child, while being fearful of making the wrong decision. Furthermore, a therapeutic misconception endangers correct assessment of participation, making parents inaccurately attribute therapeutic intent to research procedures. Physicians prefer the perspective of a therapist over a researcher. Consequently they may truly believe that in the research setting they promote the child's best interests, which maintains the existence of a therapeutic misconception between them and parents.
Due to the integration of research and care, their different ethical perspectives become intertwined in the daily practice of pediatric oncology. Increasing awareness of what this means for the communication between parents and physicians is essential. Future research should focus on efforts that overcome the problems that the synchronicity of research and care evokes.
This paper reviews the past 25 years of empirical research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on matters of ethics in psychiatric research.
Using the NIH RePORTER and Medline databases, we identified 43 grants and 77 publications that involved the empirical study of a matter of ethics in research involving mental health service users.
These articles provide original and useful information on important topics, most especially the capacity to consent and the voluntariness of consent. For example, participants who share a diagnosis vary widely in levels of cognitive impairment that correlate with decisional capacity, and capacity to consent can be enhanced easily using iterative consent processes. Few articles address matters of justice or benefits in research, particularly from the perspectives of participants. No articles address matters of privacy, confidentiality, or researcher professionalism.
Despite the usefulness of data from the studies conducted to date, current research on research ethics in psychiatry does not adequately address the concerns of service users as expressed in recent publications.
research ethics; vulnerable subjects; psychiatric ethics; informed consent; decisional capacity; mental health consumers
Human biomonitoring (HBM) has rapidly gained importance. In some epidemiological studies, the measurement and use of biomarkers of exposure, susceptibility and disease have replaced traditional environmental indicators. While in HBM, ethical issues have mostly been addressed in terms of informed consent and confidentiality, this paper maps out a larger array of societal issues from an epistemological perspective, i.e. bringing into focus the conditions of how and what is known in environmental health science.
In order to analyse the effects of HBM and the shift towards biomarker research in the assessment of environmental pollution in a broader societal context, selected analytical frameworks of science studies are introduced. To develop the epistemological perspective, concepts from "biomedical platform sociology" and the notion of "epistemic cultures" and "thought styles" are applied to the research infrastructures of HBM. Further, concepts of "biocitizenship" and "civic epistemologies" are drawn upon as analytical tools to discuss the visions and promises of HBM as well as related ethical problematisations.
In human biomonitoring, two different epistemological cultures meet; these are environmental science with for instance pollution surveys and toxicological assessments on the one hand, and analytical epidemiology investigating the association between exposure and disease in probabilistic risk estimation on the other hand. The surveillance of exposure and dose via biomarkers as envisioned in HBM is shifting the site of exposure monitoring to the human body. Establishing an HBM platform faces not only the need to consider individual decision autonomy as an ethics issue, but also larger epistemological and societal questions, such as the mode of evidence demanded in science, policy and regulation.
The shift of exposure monitoring towards the biosurveillance of human populations involves fundamental changes in the ways environment, health and disease are conceptualised; this may lead to an individualisation of responsibilities for health risks and preventive action. Attention to the conditions of scientific knowledge generation and to their broader societal context is critical in order to make HBM contribute to environmental justice.
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
In this paper the authors argue that research ethics committees (RECs) should not be paternalistic by rejecting research that poses risk to people competent to decide for themselves. However it is important they help to ensure valid consent is sought from potential recruits and protect vulnerable people who cannot look after their own best interests. The authors first describe the tragic deaths of Jesse Gelsinger and Ellen Roche. They then discuss the following claims to support their case: (1) competent individuals are epistemologically and ethically in the best position to say which risks are reasonable for them, so RECs should be no more restrictive than the "normal" constraints on people taking risks with themselves; (2) RECs do not judge individual competence (that is for researchers and psychiatrists); (3) individual liberty is mostly limited by what serves the public interest, and RECs do not determine public interest; (4) RECs may have a paternalistic role in preventing exploitation of competent people vulnerable to the use of incentives, and in protecting the interests of incompetent people; however, (5) the moral and political authority of RECs has not been established in this respect.
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
The purpose of this research is to develop and evaluate methods for conducting pragmatic cluster randomized trials in a primary care electronic database. The proposal describes one application, in a less frequent chronic condition of public health importance, secondary prevention of stroke. A related protocol in antibiotic prescribing was reported previously.
The study aims to implement a cluster randomized trial (CRT) using the electronic patient records of the General Practice Research Database (GPRD) as a sampling frame and data source. The specific objective of the trial is to evaluate the effectiveness of a computer-delivered intervention at enhancing the delivery of stroke secondary prevention in primary care. GPRD family practices will be allocated to the intervention or usual care. The intervention promotes the use of electronic prompts to support adherence with the recommendations of the UK Intercollegiate Stroke Working Party and NICE guidelines for the secondary prevention of stroke in primary care. Primary outcome measure will be the difference in systolic blood pressure between intervention and control trial arms at 12-month follow-up. Secondary outcomes will be differences in serum cholesterol, prescribing of antihypertensive drugs, statins, and antiplatelet therapy. The intervention will continue for 12 months. Information on the utilization of the decision-support tools will also be analyzed.
The CRT will investigate the effectiveness of using a computer-delivered intervention to reduce the risk of stroke recurrence following a first stroke event. The study will provide methodological guidance on the implementation of CRTs in electronic databases in primary care.
Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN35701810
Clinical trials; Cluster analysis; Electronic health records; Feasibility studies; Stroke; Secondary prevention