The readability of informed consent forms for research studies conducted in South Africa

The readability of informed consent forms for research studies conducted in South Africa
A E Fischer, W D F Venter, S Collins, M Carman, S T Lalla-Edward
South African Medical Journal, February 2021; 111(2)
Open Access
Abstract
Background
Informed consent forms (ICFs) are used to obtain consent from participants. However the complexity and comprehensiveness of these forms may not be appropriate. Readability can be quantified by formulas in Microsoft (MS) Word, such as the Flesch Reading Ease ­test. The South African (SA) ethics guidelines suggest that the MS Word Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade score should be used to assess the complexity of ICFs and should be the equivalent of grade 8 level, or lower.
Objectives
To use readability formulas to determine whether current SA ICFs are appropriate for the general population.
Methods
This was a descriptive study of a sample of English ICFs (solicited from our studies, as well as from local researchers) which received approval from local ethical review boards during the past 5 years, for prospective (≥6 months) drug studies that explored treatment and prevention of HIV, tuberculosis, diabetes or cardiovascular disease. ICFs were evaluated in MS Word for Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade, with the Simple Measure of Gobbledygook (SMOG) index calculated using www.readabilityformulas.com. Recommended targets for easy readability are above 60 for the Flesch Reading Ease score, and less than or equal to a grade 8 reading level for the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade and SMOG.
Results
A total of 75 consent forms from 35 individual research studies conducted in SA over the last 5 years were included. The consent forms had been approved by six ethics committees across seven of the SA provinces. The median (interquartile range (IQR)) Flesch Reading Ease score was 55.8 (48.7 – 59.7) and 18 (25.0%) of the ICFs had easy or standard readability, while the median (IQR) Flesch-Kincaid Grade was 10.2 (8.8 – 11.4), with 23 (30.6%) at least a grade 8 level or lower. The median (IQR) SMOG index  scored below grade 8 level.
Conclusions
Two-thirds of the ICFs from this study fail to meet the SA readability standard, a result matched by using alternative readability formulas. Readability can be improved with simple techniques and by actively monitoring readability metrics.

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