Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Beyond informed consent: ethical issues in health research

Zulfiqar A. Bhutta

Abstract

Although a relatively recent phenomenon, the role of informed consent in human research is central to its ethical regulation and conduct. However, guidelines often recommend procedures for obtaining informed consent (usually written consent) that are difficult to implement in developing countries. This paper reviews the guidelines for obtaining informed consent and also discusses prevailing views on current controversies, ambiguities and problems with these guidelines and suggests potential solutions. The emphasis in most externally sponsored research projects in developing countries is on laborious documentation of several mechanical aspects of the research process rather than on assuring true comprehension and voluntary participation. The onus for the oversight of this process is often left to overworked and ill-equipped local ethics review committees. Current guidelines and processes for obtaining informed consent should be reviewed with the specific aim of developing culturally appropriate methods of sharing information about the research project and obtaining and documenting consent that is truly informed. Further research is needed to examine the validity and user friendliness of innovations in information sharing procedures for obtaining consent in different cultural settings.

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