Ethics of non-therapeutic research on imminently dying patients in the intensive care unit

Journal of Medical Ethics 49 (5):311-318 (2023)
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Abstract

Non-therapeutic research with imminently dying patients in intensive care presents complex ethical issues. The vulnerabilities of the imminently dying, together with societal disquiet around death and dying, contribute to an intuition that such research is beyond the legitimate scope of scientific inquiry. Yet excluding imminently dying patients from research hinders the advancement of medical science to the detriment of future patients. Building on existing ethical guidelines for research, we propose a framework for the ethical design and conduct of research involving the imminently dying. To enable rapid translation to practice, we frame the approach in the form of eight ethical questions that researchers and research ethics committees ought to answer prior to conducting any research with this patient population. (1) Does the study hypothesis require the inclusion of imminently dying patients? (2) Are non-therapeutic risks and burdens minimised consistent with sound scientific design? (3) Are the risks of these procedures no more than minimal risk? (4) Are these non-therapeutic risks justified insofar as they are reasonable in relation to the anticipated benefits of the study? (5) Will valid informed consent be obtained from an authorised surrogate decision maker? (6) How will incidental findings be handled? (7) What additional steps are in place to protect families and significant others of research participants? (8) What additional steps are in place to protect clinical staff and researchers? Several ethical challenges hinder research with imminently dying patients. Nonetheless, provided adequate protections are in place, non-therapeutic research with imminently dying patients is ethically justifiable. Applying our framework to an ongoing study, we demonstrate how our question-driven approach is well suited to guiding investigators and research ethics committees.

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Author Profiles

Charles Weijer
University of Western Ontario
Nick Murphy
Ball State University

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