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Experimenting in an emergency: are clinical trials always justified?

Posted on June 24, 2013 by Jamie Loan

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RCTs (randomized controlled trials or randomized clinical trials) are widely accepted as the gold standard for assessing the efficacy of a therapeutic. This is because they allow for comparison of treatments in a manner designed to minimise bias (the risk that any observed effect or lack of effect occurs as a result of a factor other than the difference in treatment)(Hill. 1952). However, they present many ethical challenges. Importantly, one needs to ask if it is ethical to treat one person with a more modern treatment – that the investigator believes to be more effective – and the person in the bed next to them with a sugar pill, or older treatment, just to prove a point?

In general, it has been accepted that, providing the RCT is well-designed, necessary and has sufficient safeguards to minimise the harmful effects of being in either the treatment or control arm, it’s conductance is ethically justified (Edwards, et al 1998a; Edwards et al 1998b). However, there is an important caveat: patients should be informed of the potential risks and benefits of entering into the trial and it should be clear that they understand the process of randomization prior to giving consent: experimenting on a patient who has not given consent may seem unthinkable (Edwards, et al 1998a).

However, there are circumstances in healthcare where it is not possible to get informed consent. These occur where, usually by nature of the illness that we intend to treat, the patient is unable to comprehend information, retain it, arrive at a decision or articulate the decision to provide or decline informed consent. These patients are said to lack “capacity”. What to do then? Clearly patients with these conditions are no less deserving of the benefits of the assessment of which treatment is most effective, yet also their right to personal autonomy should be preserved as much as possible.

Here I intend to work through this dilemma using the specific example of a trial conducted in the field of traumatic brain injury (TBI) to see how investigators deal with these issues and how this may generate controversy that is still unresolved.

The Trial

The use of intracranial pressure (ICP) monitors to guide treatment in severe TBI is used by all neuro-intensive care units (NICU) in the UK (Panchatsharam et al. 2013). However, like many interventions for the management of TBI, there is a lack of consensus regarding the strength of evidence of therapeutic efficacy (Roberts, et al. 1998; Chesnut, et al. 2013; Hutchinson and Kirkpatrick. 2009). Because of this, Chesnut and colleagues (Chesnut, et al. 2013), decided to conduct an RCT which compared a treatment protocols for severe TBI (Glasgow Coma Scale Score <9; Teasdale and Jennet. 1974) based on either invasive ICP monitoring or clinical estimation of ICP and computed tomography (CT. The primary outcome of the study was a composite measure composed of 21 different scores (more on this later!) and the authors found that this measure did not significantly differ between the ICP and non-ICP monitor groups.

This trial has been widely criticised for a number of reasons that I will briefly detail before getting on to the meat of this blog entry: is it ethically justified to conduct trials such as this in emergency settings? So a brief crit: Firstly, the composite measure used by Chesnut is, to my mind, unhelpful – of the 21 different measures included, 15 measured psychological functions such as visuospatial memory, ability to name animals and verbal learning. Whilst measurement of these functions is laudable, in the context of severe TBI where 1/3rd – 40% in Chesnut et al – of patients die before discharge (Martins et al. 2009), subtle differences in complex cognitive functions are perhaps less relevant and more difficult to measure than alternative scales such as the Glasgow Outcome Scale (GOS) score (Jennett and Bond. 1975), or even Mortality. These are easily measured and the GOS is well validated and and long recognised as a useful measure of outcome following severe brain injury (Teasdale et al. 1998; Wilson et al. 2009). However, the trial had only 40% power to detect a statistically significant difference in the extended GOS (GOS-E) score alone and therefore not finding this is not surprising. Indeed, there was a non-significant trend to reduced mortality (especially at 14 days) and increased “Favourable outcome” as measured by GOS-E in the ICP-monitoring group. This study therefore used an odd, perhaps irrelevant, outcome measure and was underpowered to detect differences in an outcome that really matters.

The trial was conducted in Bolivia and Ecuador. The authors state that these sites were selected because they did not routinely use ICP monitoring. The reasons for this are not stated but this may be due to a lack of resources (Rubiano and Puyana. 2013; Ropper, 2012; Finkielman, 2012; Camputaro. 2012). As a result, it is possible that ICP monitoring, which is highly technical and perhaps new to some of the investigators, was ineffectively utilised. It is also possible that this represents a more widespread lack of infrastructure within these centres and this is reflected in the finding most patients were not admitted less than 1h post-injury (Rubiano and Puyana. 2013). It is oft acknowledged (although unproven) that this “Golden Hour” is the time during which outcome can be most effectively altered (Newgard, et al. 2010). Therefore, introduction of ICP monitoring at later time points may be less able to strongly influence outcome.

Ok, so this pretty much sums up my thoughts (largely stolen from commentators that I hope I have adequately referenced here!) regarding the primary outcome of this study. Because of these flaws, the efficacy (or non-efficacy) of ICP monitoring in TBI remains unproven and guidelines for its’ optimal use remain non-evidence-based! Why have so few trials been conducted in this field then?

Ethical dilemmas

Before an ethics committee will approve a trial, it must be convinced that the trial is necessary and that it will only be conducted for as long as is necessary for any observable difference between the two treatment arms to become manifest. As mentioned previously, ICP monitoring is a widespread practice in NICUs (Panchatsharam et al. 2013). That is, many clinicians are convinced that, based on personal experience, the benefits of ICP monitoring outweigh its potential risks (intracranial infection, bleeding or trauma to eloquent brain). Anecdotal evidence should not be discounted out of hand: if the treatment effect is obvious then a trial that denies a group of patients treatment that is clearly life-saving should not be conducted. The case of ICP monitoring does not appear to be so clear cut, however as many conflicting reports exist (Haddad and Arabi. 2012). This may be part of the problem: lots of clinicians feel strongly that there is little uncertainty about the value of ICP monitoring, despite the lack of convincing evidence one way or the other (Hutchinson et al. 2013; Haddad and Arabi. 2012; Shafi et al. 2008) and may therefore believe that a clinical trial is not ethically justified as the “uncertainly principle” – that a patient should only be enrolled in a trial if the clinican feels personally uncertain about the best treatment course – is not met (Weijer et al. 2000). In emergency situations, however, it is common for clinicians to be uncertain regarding the optimal treatment (Helmy et al. 2009), but this might reflect a lack of data for a particular patient, rather than uncertainty in published research. Conversely, clinicians trained to handle these situations may be required act decisively in the absence of a strong evidence base (or where the clinician does not have the time to look up the guideline/pubmed; Helmy et al, 2009). In this instance, the clinician may not feel that the uncertainty principle is met, even though the optimum treatment is unclear (Helmy et al, 2009).

Perhaps it is more appropriate therefore to use “clinical equipoise” as a standard for the enrollment of patients in clinical trials? This requires assimilation of the evidence prior enrollment of any patients to a trial (usually by systematic review and meta-analysis) to ascertain exactly where “controversy within the scientific community about whether the new intervention is better than standard therapy, including placebo” exists – either because evidence is lacking, or because researchers disagree about the standard of evidence (Djulbegovic et al. 2011). This therefore prevents circumstances unique to the urgent nature of emergency medicine or individuals views from preventing patient enrollment or introducing biases due to inappropriate patient selection. The uncertainty principle vs clinical equipoise dilemma is an important one encountered in RCTs (especially in the UK) and may explain why Chesnut et al used a developing healthcare service in their study (Weijer et al. 2000): By lieu of their expertise in TBI management without ICP monitoring, clinicians in Equador and Bolivia might feel uncertain that it provides optimum management whereas those in the USA believe that ICP monitoring is so integral to their practice that not using it in one arm of a trial would be ethically unacceptable (Finkielman. 2012).

ICP monitoring is only indicated when one suspects the patient to have, or be at risk of developing, raised ICP. In the context of TBI, most of these patients will either have a reduced GCS score (<9 for inclusion in Chesnut et al. 2013) because of their injury or because of sedation. As a result of this, patients may lack capacity to give informed consent for their entry into a clinical trial. In this circumstance, it is common practice to seek proxy consent from a relative of the patient (Kompanje et al. 2005). However, as 72% of patients admitted with major trauma are unaccompanied by relatives and contacting them takes, on average 60-80 minutes, it is rarely possible to allow immediate enrollment into a trial and commence therapy during the “Golden hour” if consent by proxy is required (Wright, et al. 2001). To expedite enrollment, differed consent may instead be used, whereby the patient is enrolled immediately and informed consent, or informed consent by proxy, obtained as soon as possible after this. If consent is not given the patient is then withdrawn from the trial (Kompanje et al. 2005). In some cases, consent may even be waived (Kompanje) and this is allowed by the WHO declaration of Helsinki, so long as the intention to use differed or waived consent is included in the protocol submitted for ethical approval and its’ use is essential. Chesnut et al state that “Informed consent was obtained for all participants”: because patients had to be GCS <9 this must have been either differed or by proxy and if it were the latter, this could explain delayed ICP bolt placement (even beyond the delay resulting from long transport to hospital times – median 3.5 hours; Chesnut, et al. 2013).


So what is the point of all this? Largely, I aimed to describe the flaws in Chesnut and colleagues’ landmark study that cause it to lack external validity: the lack of power to detect differences in meaningful outcomes and the use of healthcare centres in developing countries. However, these problems were surely known to Chesnut et al, and were likely even deliberate attempts to get around the intense and valid ethical issues that arise when questioning widely accepted, yet non-evidence based, practices. The ethics of conducting RCTs in emergency settings are vitally important when designing trials and it is important that ethicists and clinical researchers work together to develop protocols that allow trials to be conducted in a manner that protects participants, yet does not stifle research or deny future patients the benefits being treated in an evidence-rich environment.


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Chesnut RM, Temkin N, Carney N, Dikmen S, Rondina C, Videtta W, Petroni G, Lujan S, Pridgeon J, Barber J, Machamer J, Chaddock K, Celix JM, Cherner M, Hendrix T. A trial of intracranial-pressure monitoring in traumatic brain injury. N Eng J Med  2013; 368(18):1751-2

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Jamie Loan

Jamie Loan

I am a medical student studying at the University of Edinburgh and am interested in medical education and the clinical neurosciences, especially neurosurgery. View more posts from Jamie

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2 Comments on Experimenting in an emergency: are clinical trials always justified?

  • Adam Collins

    Nice article, I do think maybe the consent stuff could do with some further consideration though. The first obvious thing to say is that proxy consent simply doesn’t exist in the UK, at least in terms of given treatment. In the emergency setting, in Scotland at least, treatment arising from a doctor’s duty of care to control or eliminate an immediate risk to the patient or to others may be discharged under Common Law.
    The general principle is that if you are acting in what you reasonably believe to be the best interest of a patient, to save life or limb then you are probably DoingItRight. Of course there are legal mechanisms by which prior wishes of the patient may be recorded to be enacted in the event of their incapacitation, but those are special cases.

    The crux of this is then that the ethical, and possibly legal, issues surrounding enrolling patients in trials might be seen to be closely allied to the ethical principles which must be considered in order to permit or forbid the conduction of that trial. Assuming that the committee charged with that duty has done its job perfectly (which is spherically, with negligible mass and in a vacuum, or something like that if physicists are to be believed) then no one will really know whether the intervention offered by one arm is better than that offered by the other. This ought to mean that however much we might instinctively feel that randomly assigning treatment to our patient is inherently worse for them, it isn’t. Is “proxy consent” then a courtesy extended to the family in the same way we would offer them information about how their loved one is doing, but without letting them choose our preferred paralytic for RSI? A vital part of the work of emergency medics et al, and often an important thing to be considered when making decisions on behalf of those who cannot, but not a binding proclamation.

    Perhaps some sense, if an ethics board has allowed the trial to be run, you might well be duty bound to enrol your patients in it, with the same vigour with which you would assemble the crash team, but perhaps I’m seeing it from a very utilitarian point of view.

    July 13, 2013 at 6:23 pm
    Reply to Adam
  • Janie JM Logan

    Thanks Adam. Legally, a guardian can’t withdraw or give consent for treatment – that is, as you say, the doctor’s duty (unless the next of kin has power of attorney). What I was more getting at though was the importance of ensuring that a patient is not enrolled in a trial without the consent of the family: although they might not legally have the right to decide enrollment in a trial or not (I’m not sure of the law on this myself – if anyone is interested, I suggest you check it out from a more reliable source), I think it would be ethically dubious to enroll someone into a clinical trial when consent wasn’t given. Even if lack of consent would just result in the doctor giving a treatment, either experimental or control, as they would normally practice. If the family don’t want the uncertainty of randomisation and blinding, I don’t think they should be forced to endure it. Therefore, whilst asking their permission might, legally, be a mere courtesy, I think, ethically, it is far more important than that.

    Of course you could argue that if this prevents important, life-saving, research from being conducted, then this courtesy should be waived… but I have difficulty imagining a situation in which this would be acceptable.

    (PS apologies for the long wait in my replying!)

    August 2, 2013 at 4:34 pm
    Reply to Janie

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