Distinctive aspects of consent in pilot and feasibility studies

Distinctive aspects of consent in pilot and feasibility studies
Original Paper
Julius Sim
Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 24 February 2021
Open Access
Prior to a main randomized clinical trial, investigators often carry out a pilot or feasibility study in order to test certain trial processes or estimate key statistical parameters, so as to optimize the design of the main trial and/or determine whether it can feasibly be run. Pilot studies reflect the design of the intended main trial, whereas feasibility studies may not do so, and may not involve allocation to different treatments. Testing relative clinical effectiveness is not considered an appropriate aim of pilot or feasibility studies. However, consent is no less important than in a main trial as a means of morally legitimizing the investigator’s actions. Two misperceptions are central to consent in clinical studies—therapeutic misconception (a tendency to conflate research and therapy) and therapeutic misestimation (a tendency to overestimate possible benefits and/or underestimate possible harms associated with participation). These phenomena may take a distinctive form in pilot and feasibility studies, owing to potential participants’ likely prior unfamiliarity with the nature and purposes of such studies. Thus, participants may confuse the aims of a pilot or feasibility study (developing or optimizing trial design and processes) with those of a main trial (testing treatment effectiveness) and base consent on this misconstrual. Similarly, a misunderstanding of the ability of pilot and feasibility studies to provide information that will inform clinical care, or the underdeveloped nature of interventions included in such studies, may lead to inaccurate assessments of the objective possibility of benefit, and weaken the epistemic basis of consent accordingly. Equipoise may also be particularly challenging to grasp in the context of a pilot study. The consent process in pilot and feasibility studies requires a particular focus, and careful communication, if it is to carry the appropriate moral weight. There are corresponding implications for the process of ethical approval.

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