Patients find misleading information on the internet

October 30, 2018

Pär SegerdahlIn phase 1 clinical studies of substances that might possibly be used to treat cancer in the future, cancer patients are recruited as research participants. These patients almost always have advanced cancer that no longer responds to the standard treatment.

That research participation would affect the cancer is unlikely. The purpose of a phase 1 study is to determine safe dosage range and to investigate side effects and other safety issues. This will then enable proceeding to investigating the effectiveness of the substance on specific forms of cancer, but with other research participants.

Given that patients often seek online information on clinical trials, Tove Godskesen, Josepine Fernow and Stefan Eriksson wanted to investigate the quality of the information that currently is available on the internet about phase 1 clinical cancer trials in Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

The results they report in the European Journal of Cancer Care are quite alarming. The most serious problem, as I understand it, is that the information conceals risks of serious side effects, and in various ways suggests possible positive treatment outcomes. This lack of accurate language is serious. We are dealing with severely ill patients who easily entertain unrealistic hopes for new treatment options.

To give a picture of the problem, I would like to give a few examples of typical phrases that Godskesen, Fernow and Eriksson found in the information on the internet, as well as their suggestions for more adequate wordings. Noticing the contrast between the linguistic usages is instructive.

One problem is that the information speaks of treatment, even though it is about research participation. Instead of writing “If you are interested in the treatment,” you could write “If you want to participate in the research.” Rather than writing “Patients will be treated with X,” you could write “Participants will be given X.”

The substance being tested is sometimes described as a medicine or therapy. Instead, you can write “You will get a substance called X.”

Another problem is that research participation is described as an advantage and opportunity for the cancer patient. Instead of writing “An advantage of study participation is that…,” one could write “The study might lead to better cancer treatments for future patients.” Rather than writing “This treatment could be an opportunity for you,” which is extremely misleading in phase 1 clinical cancer trials, one could more accurately say, “You can participate in this study.”

The authors also tested the readability of the texts they found on the internet. The Danish website skaccd.org had the best readability scores, followed by the Norwegian site helsenorge.no. The Swedish website cancercenter.se got the worst readability scores. The information was very brief and deemed to require a PhD to be understandable.

It is, of course, intelligible that it is hard to speak intelligibly about such difficult things as cancer trials. Not only do the patients recruited as study participants hope for effective treatment. The whole point of the research is effective cancer treatment. This is the ultimate perspective of the research; the horizon towards which the gaze is turned.

The fact, however, is that this horizon is far removed, far away in the future, and is about other cancer patients than those who participate in phase 1 trials. Therefore, it is important not to let this perspective characterize information to patients in whom hope would be unrealistic.

Do not talk about treatments and opportunities. Just say “You can participate in this study.”

Pär Segerdahl

Godskesen, TE, Fernow J, Eriksson S. Quality of online information about phase I clinical cancer trials in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Eur J Cancer Care. 2018;e12937. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecc.12937

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Speaking to 5-year-olds about research

October 23, 2018

How should we talk to children about research? And how should we go about recruiting them to studies? For children to become research participants, their parents must consent. Regulation states children should also give assent themselves, to as great extent as possible. Our ethics committees require us to provide them with age-appropriate information. Health care providers and researchers think the system works well and is ethically “correct.”

From recruiting numerous children for various research projects, I have some thoughts on the subject. I have put together countless information letters for children of various ages; all reviewed and approved by the ethics committee. But what, exactly, is “age-appropriate information”? With support from developmental psychology and some paediatric research, the ambitious paediatric researcher can get it right. On a group level, that is. We can estimate what the average kid of a certain age group understands. But how appropriate is the “age-appropriate” information for individual children? In his poem Till eftertanke, Søren Kirkegard wrote “To help someone, I must indeed understand more than they do, but first and foremost understand what they understand.”

Today, I value a slow and calm recruiting process. I talk to the children about what research is, most 5-year-olds actually have an idea. We speak about what the project is about, and what we want them to contribute. Perhaps we draw or look at pictures. I tell them that it is absolutely fine to change your mind and leave at any time, and that no one will be angry or upset with them if they do. And then we talk some more… Lastly, and most importantly, I ask the child to tell me what we talked about, and what we agreed upon. It takes some time to understand their understanding. Give yourself that time.

Not until I understand that the child has understood do I ask them to sign the consent form.

Sara Frygner-Holm

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Risks of discrimination in population-based biobanks

April 4, 2018

Pär SegerdahlEven good intentions can cause harm. Considerately treating certain groups as “vulnerable,” such as pregnant women and children, can cause discrimination against them. If we protect them from participation in clinical research, we know less about how they respond to medical treatments. They are therefore exposed to greater risks when they are patients in need of medical treatment. Thanks for your concern.

Deborah Mascalzoni points out possible discrimination patterns in population-based biobank research. She particularly highlights people with psychiatric conditions, who often are excluded from such studies. However, she also mentions children, who rarely are included in population-based biobanks, as well as people with early forms of dementia or addiction problems.

Mascalzoni thus asks how representative population-based biobanks really are. This is important, as results from such research are increasingly used in the planning of care. We need to see these potential discrimination patterns more clearly, so that people suffering from psychiatric conditions, for example, have similar opportunities to benefit from research as others.

However, the patterns are caused not only by how we think of certain groups as “vulnerable.” Even practical difficulties, to which you may not give much thought, can cause discrimination. It is ethically and legally cumbersome to recruit children as research participants. People suffering from depression may have suicidal thoughts, which requires special efforts. People with early symptoms of dementia may have difficulty understanding complex information, which complicates the process of informed consent.

Some groups are in practice more difficult to recruit to population-based biobanks. Not only our consideration of certain groups as “vulnerable,” then, but also practical obstacles to which we do not pay attention, may cause biased research results, which may lead to poorer care for certain groups. There is therefore reason to ask about representativeness.

Pär Segerdahl

Mascalzoni, D. 2017. Reverse discrimination for psychiatric genetic studies in population-based biobanks. European Neuropsychopharmacology 27: 475-476

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Hoping when there is no hope

November 27, 2017

Pär SegerdahlPatients participating in phase I oncology trials have terminal cancer and are near the end of life. Participating in research cannot cure them or even extend their lives. Not only because they have terminal cancer, but also because in phase I trials one tests the safety profile of the treatment, not effectiveness against cancer.

Nevertheless, many patients state that hope is an important reason for them to participate in phase I oncology trials. This is worrying from an ethical perspective. Do they understand what they agree to when they enroll as research participants? Have they been properly informed?

In an article in the Journal of Oncology Practice, Tove Godskesen discusses the issue, together with Ulrik Kihlbom. They argue that it is a norm in cancer care to provide hope to patients, and that this norm may support a tendency in personnel who recruit research participants to not always discourage hope, but rather reinforce it.

Since supporting hope in cancer patients is humanly important, it is not entirely easy to find a solution to the problem. Godskesen and Kihlbom proceed cautiously by distinguishing three kinds of hope that cancer patients may have concerning their participation in phase I trials.

The first is independent hope: patients hope for something that is independent of cure, such as receiving more attention by participating in research. The second kind of hope is realistic hope: patients understand that there is really no hope of cure or prolonged life, but they still hope against hope. The third kind is unrealistic hope: patients misunderstand the situation and think they are offered a treatment that doctors/researchers believe can help.

It is reasonable to support independent and realistic hope in phase I trials, according to Godskesen and Kihlbom. However, unrealistic hope is ethically worrying. It should be discouraged when patients enroll as research participants.

Discouraging unrealistic hope requires awareness of the norm to provide hope to cancer patients. The authors describe how a hopeful attitude is activated simultaneously with the cancer diagnosis. Words like treatment, hope and cure are immediately emphasized in the conversations with patients. The risk is that these words are used in the same hopeful spirit also when participation in a phase I trial is discussed.

Another problem in this context is that patients participating in phase I trials rarely receive palliative care, which would be reasonable given their terminal cancer. This may create the false appearance that research participation means being offered a new treatment. Perhaps the norm to provide hope creates this reluctance to mention palliative care. Staff is afraid that they may discourage hope. That fear is problematic, the authors claim.

What measures do Godskesen and Kihlbom propose? First of all, we need to put extra high demands on the information to participants in phase I oncology trials so that this vulnerable patient group is not exploited. Secondly, the information should contain palliative options. Thirdly, patients should receive palliative counseling throughout the trial.

Integrating research participation with palliative care reduces the risk of encouraging unrealistic hope in this patient group. The fact that trial participation is research and not treatment becomes clearer.

Pär Segerdahl

Godskesen T. and Kihlbom, U. (2017), “I have a lot of pills in my bag, you know”: institutional norms in the provision of hope in phase I clinical cancer trials. Journal of Oncology Practice 13(10): 679-682. DOI: 10.1200/JOP.2017.021832

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Consent based on trust rather than information?

March 21, 2017

Pär SegerdahlConsent to research participation has two dimensions. On the one hand, the researcher wants to do something with the participant: we don’t know what until the researcher tells. To obtain consent, the researcher must provide information about what will be done, what the purpose is, what the risks and benefits are – so that potential participants can decide whether to consent or not.

On the other hand, potential participants would hardly believe the information and consider consenting, if they didn’t trust the researcher or the research institution. If trust is strong, they might consent even without considering the information. Presumably, this occurs often.

The fact that consent can be given based on trust has led to a discussion of trust-based consent as more or less a separate form of consent, next to informed consent. An article in the journal Bioethics, for example, argues that consent based on trust is not morally inferior to consent based on information. Consent based on trust supports autonomy, voluntariness, non-manipulation and non-exploitation as much as consent based on information does, the authors argue.

I think it is important to highlight trust as a dimension of consent to research participation. Consent based on trust need not be morally inferior to consent based on careful study of information.

However, I get puzzled over the tendency to speak of trust-based consent as almost a separate form of consent, next to informed consent. That researchers consider ethical aspects of planned research and tell about them seems to be a concrete way of manifesting responsibility, respect and trustworthiness.

Carefully planning and going through the consent procedure is an ethical practice that can make us better humans: we change through what we do. It also opens up for respondents to say, “Thank you, I trust you, I don’t need to know more, I will participate.” Information and trust go hand in hand. There is dynamic interplay between them.

I guess that a background to talk of trust-based consent as almost a separate form of consent is another tendency: the tendency to purify “information” as cognitive and to idealize humans as rational decision makers. In addition, there is a tendency to regiment the information that “must” be provided.

This tendency to abstract and regulate “information” has made informed consent into what sometimes is perceived as an empty, bureaucratic procedure. Nothing that makes us better humans, in other words!

It would be unfortunate if we established two one-dimensional forms of consent instead of seeing information and trust as two dimensions of consent to research.

Another article in Bioethics presents a concrete model of trust-based consent to biobank research. Happily, the model includes willingly telling participants about biobank research. Among other things, one explains why one cannot specify which research projects will use the donated biological samples, as this lies in the future. Instead, one gives broad information about what kind of research the biobank supports, and one informs participants that they can limit the use of the material they donate if they want to. And one tells about much more.

Information and trust seem here to go hand in hand.

Pär Segerdahl

Halmsted Kongsholm, N. C., Kappel, K. 2017. Is consent based on trust morally inferior to consent based on information? Bioethics. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12342

Sanchini, V. et al. 2016. A trust-based pact in research biobanks. From theory to practice. Bioethics 4: 260-271. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12184

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Stem cells: unique biobank material?

March 7, 2017

Pär SegerdahlStem cells are perhaps not what first springs to mind as biobank material. Yet, even stem cells can be biobank material and there are biobanks that focus on stem cells. The use of this biobank material, however, has some unique features.

Stem cell researchers process not only data from human material. The material itself is “processed” and sometimes transplanted to research participants. Commercializing stem cell research moreover implies that cells derived from donated human tissue appear in products on a market. This gives rise to ethical and legal questions.

Does the law allow patenting cell lines derived from human donated material? Is buying and selling such material lawful? Another issue concerns research participants’ right to withdraw their consent at any time. Human embryonic stem cell research uses stem cells from donated spare embryos from IVF treatment. How far does embryo donors’ right to withdraw consent stretch? Must transplanted devices with matured cells be removed from research participants, if the embryo donor withdraws consent? Moreover, assuming that researchers share stem cell lines with companies, are these companies willing to invest in the development of stem cell products if embryo donors may withdraw their consent at any time?

Another difficulty is the purpose to which embryo donors are asked to consent. According to the law, human embryos can be donated only for research purposes (or to other IVF patients). Yet, medical research loses its meaning if results cannot be commercialized. It cannot then reach patients. It is important to inform donors about this broader context of embryo donation. Does that information imply that the consent becomes broader than has support in the law? Or is there support since embryos are not used in product development, only derived material?

The answers to these questions probably depend on whether one can distinguish between donated embryos and cell material derived from embryos (using various inventions). This raises also more philosophical questions about how to view embryos, stem cell lines, matured cells, and human tissue.

Pär Segerdahl

An earlier version of this text was published in Biobank perspectives.

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Ethics and law of stem cell treatment of diabetes

December 21, 2016

Pär SegerdahlMany people support in various ways medical research, which they perceive as urgent in view of the needs of various patient groups. But patients typically won’t benefit from research unless the results are translated into development of medical products.

Type 1 diabetes is an incurable disease that requires daily life-sustaining treatment and strict dietary rules. Disease onset usually occurs at an early age.

In Sweden, about 50 000 people have this form of diabetes and of these around 8 000 are children. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells. Without insulin the body cells cannot use glucose for energy, and the sugar level in the blood rises. Energy is recovered instead from fat and protein, which causes waste products that can cause diabetic coma and attacks on vital organs.

Today, diabetes is treated with daily insulin injections, or by using an insulin pump. This requires continuous measurement of blood sugar levels, as incorrect doses of insulin entails risks and can be life-threatening. It is not easy to live with diabetes.

An alternative treatment, which is still at the research stage, is to generate new insulin-producing cells using human embryonic stem cells. The insulin-producing cells detect blood sugar levels and regulate the secretion of insulin. In order not to be attacked by the immune system, the transplanted cells are encapsulated in a protective material. It may become easier to live with diabetes.

But research alone doesn’t treat diabetes. Encapsulated insulin-producing cells need to be produced and made available also to patients; not only to research participants. But this is a big step and a host of ethical and legal issues, including embryo donation, patentability and consent, need to be examined and discussed.

The Swedish Research Council recently granted funding for a project to examine these issues. The project is led by Mats G. Hansson at CRB and is a collaboration with Olle Korsgren, professor of transplantation immunology, as well as with lawyers Anna-Sara Lind and Bengt Domeij, and philosophers and ethicists Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist and Pär Segerdahl.

The step from stem cell research to available treatments requires reflection. I look forward to start thinking about the ethical and philosophical questions.

Pär Segerdahl

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Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


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