Assessing the Ethics of Medical Research in Emergency Settings: How Do International Regulations Work in Practice?

National Advisory Board on Health Care Ethics, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, P.O. Box 33, 00023 Government, Helsinki, Finland.
Science and Engineering Ethics (Impact Factor: 0.96). 10/2007; 13(3):305-13. DOI: 10.1007/s11948-007-9026-5
Source: PubMed


Different ethical principles conflict in research conducted in emergency research. Clinical care and its development should be based on research. Patients in critical clinical condition are in the greatest need of better medicines. The critical condition of the patient and the absence of a patient representative at the critical time period make it difficult and sometimes impossible to request an informed consent before the beginning of the trial. In an emergency, care decisions must be made in a short period of time, and the more time is wasted, the more the risk of death or severe tissue damage and incapacity increases. Consent requests take time, and so the time period before treatment might put the patient's life in jeopardy. Not requesting consent before a trial is also contradictory. A person should not be forced to participate in a trial against his or her will. Due to the dark history of medical research previously, international declarations and conventions have set up ethical principles for medical research. They emphasize the autonomy of the research participant--or his or her legal representative--to give a free and informed consent prior to the initiation of research. In the case of a critical emergency, the unconscious state of the patient, the emotional stress of family members or the lack of time to start life-sustaining measures may often restrict the possibilities of communicating with the patient or his/her representative. Therefore, written informed consent is difficult to achieve, and its voluntariness in emergency situations is, at best, open to question. The mortality of patients is high without clinical interventions in emergency research. Random selection of patients is difficult and requires extra work from personnel in the emergency rooms. Recruitment, information and asking for consent may also take time, postpone the initiation of treatment and increase the risk of death and irreversible tissue and organ damage, and therefore be risky for the patient. It is therefore essential that the health care professionals recruiting suitable research participants are well motivated and well trained. Medical research in an emergency setting should always be regarded as an exceptional situation requiring special provisions. Only such research should be done as cannot be done in other conditions. An independent body must approve the research protocol and the ways in which the consent of the participant or proxy are to be sought. In addition, the trial must be expected to result in direct and significant benefit for the research participants. If research without prior consent is not approved, the development of emergency care is threatened. On the other hand, if prior consent is not required, a person could be recruited into a clinical trial against his or her will. Doing good and avoiding harm, and respecting the autonomy of the patient are in conflict in the context of emergency medical research. To develop better medicines for patients experiencing acute medical emergencies, research into such conditions should be allowed. Research participants should have the possibility to participate or refuse to participate in research that may benefit them and other patients. The risk of irreversible damage occurring as the consequence of time delays for seeking consent is unacceptable. A prior wish about participation in clinical trials should be respected, if known. The conditions under which medical research in emergencies can be considered acceptable can be determined and agreed upon nationally and internationally.

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