Descriptions of benefits and risks in consent forms for phase 1 oncology trials.
BACKGROUND: Ethicists have suggested that written consent forms encourage participants in phase 1 cancer trials to expect benefit from the experimental agent and to overlook serious risks.
METHODS: To evaluate the written description of direct benefit as well as risk, all consent forms for 1999 phase 1 cancer trials were compiled from 80 percent of the National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers and from six of eight large pharmaceutical developers of anticancer drugs. In each case, we evaluated the characteristics of the trial, the descriptions of the purpose and procedures of the research, the promise of benefit, the description of risks, and the description of alternatives.
RESULTS: Of 272 forms, 268 explicitly mentioned that the trial was research, and 249 stated that the purpose of the trial was testing for safety. Nearly all forms (269) mentioned the right to withdraw from the trial. Almost all forms (260) referred to the experimental agent as "treatment" or "therapy." Only one consent form promised direct benefit to subjects. Most forms (181) mentioned death as a risk, and very few (14) mentioned cure as even a possible benefit. Most (229) stated that there was unknown risk involved and indicated that severe or permanent harms were possible (224).
CONCLUSIONS: Consent forms for phase 1 oncology studies almost never promise direct benefit to subjects, rarely mention cure, and usually communicate the seriousness and unpredictability of risk. Although there is room for improvement, the substance of these forms is unlikely to be the primary source of misunderstanding by subjects in phase 1 oncology trials.