There is a debate at the highest levels of government about how to classify the risks of research studies that evaluate therapies that are in widespread use. Should the risks of those therapies be considered as risks of research that is designed to evaluate those therapies? Or not? The Common Rule states, “In evaluating risks and benefits, the IRB should consider only those risks and benefits that may result from the research (as distinguished from risks and benefits of therapies subjects would receive even if not participating in the research).” (CFR 46.111 (a)(2)). By contrast, the Office of Human Research Protections, in a proposed “guidance” states, “The reasonably foreseeable risks of research include already-identified risks of the standards of care being evaluated as a purpose of the research.” (emphasis added).
In this paper, I argue that the Common Rule got it right and OHRP got it wrong. When treatments are in widespread use, the risks of those treatments are ever-present for all patients. By enrolling in formal studies that use rigorous methods to compare one treatment with another and that carefully monitor outcomes and adverse events, patients are protected from the risks of idiosyncratic practice variation. Their risks are decreased, rather than increased.
If OHRP's approach becomes the law of the land, patients will be misinformed about the relative risks of treatment and research in ways that undermine autonomy rather than promoting it and that make truly informed consent impossible.