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1.  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
2.  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
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.  Does clinical equipoise apply to cluster randomized trials in health research? 
Trials  2011;12:118.
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.
PMCID: PMC3113987  PMID: 21569349
5.  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
6.  Ethical and policy issues in cluster randomized trials: rationale and design of a mixed methods research study 
Trials  2009;10:61.
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.
PMCID: PMC2725043  PMID: 19638233

Results 1-6 (6)