In clinical research with participating patients, research nurses play a central role. On a daily basis, they balance the values of care and the needs of research. For these nurses, it is clear that patients’ informed consent for research participation is more than just a one-time event completed by signing the form. The written consent is the beginning of a long relationship with the patients. The process requires effective communication throughout the course of the study, from obtaining consent to subsequent interactions with patients related to their consent. The research nurses must continuously ensure that participating patients are well informed about how the study is progressing, that they understand any changes to the set-up or to the risks and benefits. If conditions change too much, a new consent may need to be obtained.

Despite research nurses being so deeply involved in the entire consent process, there is a lack of research on this professional group’s experiences of and views on informed consent. What problems and opportunities do they experience? In an interview study, Tove Godskesen, Joar Björk and Niklas Juth studied the issue. They interviewed 14 Swedish research nurses about ethical challenges related to the consent process and how the challenges were handled.

The challenges were mainly about factors that could threaten voluntariness. Informed consent must be given voluntarily, but several factors can threaten this ethically important requirement. The nurses mentioned a number of factors, such as rushed decision-making in stressful situations, excessively detailed information to patients, doctors’ influence over patients, and disagreement within the family. An elusive threat to voluntariness is patients’ own sometimes unrealistic hopes for therapeutic benefit from research participation. Why is this elusive? Because the hopes can make the patients themselves motivated to participate. However, if the hopes are unrealistic, voluntariness can be said to be undermined even if the patients want to participate.

How do the research nurses deal with the challenges? An important measure is to give patients time in a calm environment to thoughtfully consider their participation and discuss it. This also reduces the risk of participants dropping out of the study, reasoned the nurses. Time with the patients also helps the research nurses to understand the patients’ situation, so that the recruitment does not take place hastily and perhaps on the basis of unrealistic expectations, they emphasized. The interviewees also said that they have an important role as advocates for the patients. In this role, the nurses may need time to understand and more closely examine the patients’ perspectives and reasons for potentially withdrawing from the study, and to find suitable solutions. It can also happen that patients say no to participation even though they really want to, perhaps because they are overwhelmed by all the information that made participation sound complicated. Again, the research nurses may need to give themselves and the patients time for in-depth conversations, so that patients who want to participate have the opportunity to do so. Maybe it is not as complicated as it seemed?

Read the important interview study here: Challenges regarding informed consent in recruitment to clinical research: a qualitative study of clinical research nurses’ experiences.

The study also highlights another possible problem that the research nurses raised, namely the questionable exclusion of certain groups from research participation (such as people who have difficulty understanding Swedish or have reduced cognitive ability). Such exclusion can mean that patients who want to participate in research are not allowed to do so, that certain groups have less access to new treatments, and that the scientific quality of the studies is hampered.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Godskesen, T., Björk, J. & Juth, N. Challenges regarding informed consent in recruitment to clinical research: a qualitative study of clinical research nurses’ experiences. Trials 24, 801 (2023).

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Ethics needs empirical input