Clinical trials are widely accepted as the best method for understanding whether any particular medical intervention is safe, efficacious, acceptable to patients and cost-effective. Almost every Health Service in Australia runs clinical trials of one sort or another. Enrolment of patients (in this instance they are all patients and not healthy volunteers) into clinical trials through health services operates as a separate activity to routine health care delivery and is managed through its own governance processes rather than as a part of clinical governance. This is widely recognised to be necessary but is unfortunately inefficient, duplicative in many instances, has a lack of objectivity and as a result of poor resourcing and training, is often slow and regarded as problematic by the research community. Sadly, there is a fairly widespread view amongst researchers that Research Governance is a bureaucratic hurdle rather than a means to ensure their research will be safe, high quality, be well managed and have significant impact.
One of the problems with the current system is that it treats all clinical trials as a single category rather than recognising the profound differences between trials that are seeking to establish new evidence for experimental therapeutics and those that are comparing existing therapeutic interventions (so-called Comparative Effectiveness Trials-CETs). It is clear that the risks of being enrolled in a CET are likely to be less than if being enrolled in a trial involving an unapproved therapeutic. Indeed many patients expect clinicians to deliver evidence based care, rather than practice variation, which can only be elicited from high quality CETs However, it is also true that a person randomised into the standard-of-care control arm of a trial of an unapproved therapeutic is at no greater risk than if they were not in the trial. Indeed, there is a broad range of evidence that participation in trials has an overall benefit in terms of safety and outcomes even for the control arms, so one could argue that being in a trial is by and large better than not being in a trial. It is also widely believed that the act of randomisation, the key feature underlying the power of clinical trials, is in itself risky and lifts any trial into a category that requires careful management. The National Statement does not make any such comment about risk related to randomisation and this view is one of subjective convention rather than one based on any proper assessment of risk.
Another feature of managing clinical trials is ensuring that potential participants are given appropriate information free of any coercion or inducements so that they can make a completely autonomous and sufficiently informed decision to participate or not. To ensure this a great deal of time and attention is paid to reviewing increasingly lengthy and complicated Participant Information Sheets and Consent forms (PICFs). In contrast almost no meaningful time is spent on evaluating the skills of the team in providing the information and being able to answer questions in a manner that ensures there is no coercive or inducive behaviour. Moreover, to my knowledge, HRECs do not routinely require evidence of whether consumer input was sought in the development of the enrolment strategy or review the training and ability of those who obtain consent. Moreover HRECs do not audit how a participant is recruited or evaluate any notes taken as part of the consent process as a matter of routine. This would appear to be the more important component of understanding whether the ethical issues arising from enrolling participants in a trial are being met.
Another area of research governance in need of an overhaul is a proper evaluation of the competing interests involved in running clinical trials in the first place. The term ‘conflict of interest’ is problematic in itself because it inherently assumes a negative position rather than recognising that instead there are legitimate instances of competing interests that have to be balanced and that it is not a black and white scenario. The NHMRC National Ethics Conference held in 2005 had this topic as it’s central theme and attendees discussed the need to take a more nuanced approach that included a broader consideration of competing rather than conflicting interests. These competing interests apply to participants themselves, the health professionals running the trials, the institutions responsible for operating the site where the trials are being done and finally the funders of the trials who may also be the ‘sponsor’ in the definition adopted by the TGA, that is, those with a direct vested interest in proving an unapproved therapeutic is better than existing practice so they can market their product for profit. Frameworks for managing these competing interests are often little more than answering ‘conflict of interest’ questions in the ethics application forms or on institutional declaration forms and stating that any institutional policy is being followed. This is clearly inadequate for a variety of reasons. In my view based on working in public and private institutions for 20 years, is that there is a check box mentality to managing potential competing interests with no resources deployed to either teaching staff about it or exploring the more subtle elements as opposed to simply addressing the blatantly obvious ones such as a direct financial conflicts.
Given the earlier statements about the potential benefits of being enrolled in trials, and also the fact that for a subset of people the trial may be the only way to access a potentially life-saving treatment, participants themselves may have a profound self interest in participation. At the end of the day who are we doing research for if not the end-users, therefore system generated research barriers inadvertently have a direct impact on patients and members of the public.
It is also possible that participation in the trial leads to funding of components of care that would otherwise be a cost to the person. Some hold the view that people on trials should not experience any out-of-pocket expenses, even where those expenses would occur if they were not on the study. Arguments presented by investigators and sponsors that people should still have to pay any out-of-pocket expenses for standard-of-care components of a trial have been met with opposition by HRECs and institutions in some instances.
Health services are encouraged to run clinical trials for a variety of reasons that include being seen to be a centre of innovation and learning as well as providing access to cutting edge treatments. The reputational benefits are a discrete interest of the organisation that may, if connected to revenue from increased referrals, also be regarded as a potential marketing tool. In addition, some have argued that government funders or health funds should not have to pay for treatments provided during any part of a clinical trial and therefore enrolment in trials is a means to offset some of the expenses associated with providing care to people in the health service. Some also argue that to promote clinical trial activity health services should have enrolment of patients in trials as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) despite the obvious issues arising from simply working in ways that focus on meeting this that may not align with the best interests of participants. Indeed, whilst setting KPIs may seem like a good idea they create perverse incentives that are difficult to manage in the existing framework.
A topic that is rarely adequately discussed is the conflicts of interest of the institution that is both the site of the research, enjoying some of financial and reputation benefit from doing so, having a degree of duty of care for the participant, plus conducting the ethical and governance review. Commercially sponsored studies bring in revenue which is used to offset the costs of managing a clinical trial infrastructure. Ironically, making HRECs and Research Governance Offices dependent on revenue from commercial sponsors through fees is a major potential risk for conflicts of interest to arise, particularly where pressure is put to streamline approvals which could compromise more thorough evaluation of risks. Clearly a need to balance efficiency with due process is needed, but the dependence on fees that are not linked in any way to actual work done in terms of proportionate fee structures creates a clear conflict of interest within organisations. There is also a significant issue with using clinical trial revenue from commercially sponsored studies to subsidise the costs of Investigator led studies which do not otherwise enjoy such financial support. Whilst highly attractive to cash-strapped organisation unwilling to invest in such trials, the dependence on such revenue is far from ideal, and in some instances means that these trials cannot be opened as they may compete for recruitment of the same patient population and revenue generating trials will take precedence. I have observed this on several occasions at my own and other institutions, so it is far from a hypothetical risk.
Finally, investigators themselves may have competing interests with respect to enrolling people into trials and there have been arguments against permitting doctors who are both a chief investigator and the primary care provider for a patient from being involved in enrolling a person into a study. This is a fundamentally flawed argument and not one supported in the National Statement. Health Professionals have a primary responsibility to ensure the safety of those in their care and this is enshrined in a legal framework that could result in them losing their status as a health provider for any serious transgressions. Health Professionals should be in true equipoise regarding whether a person participates in a study or not and only suggest it if it would not be against their interests. Those paid to do research (study coordinators and Research Nurses) have competing interests to enrol people with no such equipoise and penalty for failing to exercise good judgement about whether a person should or should not participate. For this reason, for medical interventions, only doctors should decide whether a person should be invited to participate and should provide independent advice regarding the risks and benefits. Recognising where competing interests to enrol a person exist are managed well on the whole although I have also experienced instances in which obliviousness to the actual conflict of interest of being an investigator and having a financial interest in a product were not identified by doctors as being a direct conflict despite filling in forms that asked them to identify these. Therefore, it is not enough to simply write policies and ask people to fill in forms and appropriate training and the development of a culture that supports people to think about what they are doing is needed.
It is perhaps worthwhile for institutions implementing the Australian Clinical Trial Governance Framework overseen by the Australian Commission for Safety and Quality in Health Care (ACSQHC) to incorporate key parts of managing competing interests used in clinical governance for research activities as these likely overlap. A reasonable question can be asked: Do potential participants appreciate the conflicts of the parties they might assume are supposed to safeguard their welfare and interests? What is therefore needed is more than simply listing financial interests or relationships in ethics and governance applications. Instead a systematic and sophisticated approach is required that weighs up the risks and benefits of running research at a strategic level that is deployed as a core part of the culture of an organisation rather than as check box approach in research applications.
This post may be cited as:
Zeps, N. (29 June 2020) Embedding clinical research as part of routine healthcare: Managing the potential for competing interests. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/embedding-clinical-research-as-part-of-routine-healthcare-managing-the-potential-for-competing-interests