Combining value of information analysis and ethical argumentation in decisions on participation of vulnerable patients in clinical research

BMC Medical Ethics 19 (1):5 (2018)
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Abstract

The participation of vulnerable patients in clinical research poses apparent ethical dilemmas. Depending on the nature of the vulnerability, their participation may challenge the ethical principles of autonomy, non-maleficence, or justice. On the other hand, non-participation may preclude the building of a knowledge base that is a prerequisite for defining the optimal clinical management of vulnerable patients. Such clinical uncertainty may also incur substantial economic costs. We present the participation of pre-menopausal women with atrial fibrillation in trials of novel oral anticoagulant drugs as a case study. Due to their non-participation in pivotal trials, it is uncertain whether for them, the risks that are associated with these drugs are outweighed by the advantages compared with conventional treatment. We addressed the question whether research of this new class of drugs in this subgroup would be appropriate from both, an ethical as well an economic perspective. We used the method of specifying norms as a wider framework to resolve the apparent ethical dilemma, while incorporating the question whether research of oral anticoagulants in premenopausal women with atrial fibrillation can be justified on economic grounds. For the latter, the results of a value-of-information analysis were used. Further clinical research on NOACs in premenopausal women with atrial fibrillation can be justified on both, ethical and economic grounds. Addressing apparent ethical dilemmas by invoking a method such as specifying norms can improve the quality of public practical reasoning. As such, the method should also prove valuable to committees that have formally been granted the authority to review trial protocols and proposals for scientific research.

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