Ethics Approval

Regulatory involvement in human research has resulted from various historical research events. Some of these issues are highlighted in the University of Nevada’s History of Research Ethics. As a result, research involving humans is governed by a number of guidelines. These ensure that both participants and researchers are protected by compliance with international, national and local requirements. A research protocol describes how the research complies with these standards.

Ethics approval is normally required from the organisation that is responsible for the participants in a study. The overall framework for ethical review of research has changed over the last decade. A 'harmonisation' process has led to a national approach that is now accessible through a single ethics review Portal.

The National Ethical Application Form (NEAF) was developed to make the approval of multisite studies easier. NEAF has since been replaced by the Human Research Ethics Application (HREA), which is accepted by the National Mutual Acceptance (NMA) Scheme. NMA is the system of single scientific and ethical review of multi-centre human research projects across Australian jurisidictions, including most Australian States/Territories.

Some studies may be designated as involving only low or negligible risk to participants and researchers. For studies which meet the criteria for this definition, the ethics approval process is likely to be somewhat simpler and easier, usually only requiring completion of a brief institutional form. Evaluation of health services, quality improvement projects, audits, benchmarking studies, and so on, do not usually require ethics approval if the data is to be used only internally within the organisation and not published, however individual organisations may have their own policy on this.

Applications for ethics approval are usually required to include a well developed research protocol outlining methodology, participants, data collection, analysis and any ethical considerations. It is important to allow sufficient time when planning research in palliative care to prepare for, and receive, ethics approval. The processes of ethics approval may take some time especially in multi-site research, where each site may have its own procedures.

A complete set of templates for participant information and consent forms have been developed by the NHMRC. For new researchers these templates provide a guide to the issues that need to be addressed in their own study documentation. Many ethics committees will now begin to require these templates to be used routinely.

Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) can sometimes be very cautious when reviewing ethics applications for studies using palliative populations. The following points can help in seeking ethics approval:

  • Focus on benefit versus burden within the protocol. In many studies, the participants themselves will be unlikely to benefit from changes to care informed by findings from the research. In these cases, a persuasive argument needs to be made that the benefits to the patient (and sometimes general) population outweigh the burden on the small number of individuals taking part. The risks and burdens of participating will need to be clearly stated on the patient information sheet so people can make a balanced decision about whether or not to participate.
  • Ensure that ethical considerations are clearly and well explained to assist the reviewers in considering the protocol. There are nearly always ethical considerations of some kind; it is better to reassure the HREC that you have tried hard to think these through rather than indicating that there are none.
  • There are specific issues to consider in relation to research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; NHMRC guidance is available to assist with this:

The Centre for Health Services Development has produced a document Ethical research in palliative care which may help in developing an ethics proposal. The Standard Protocol Items: Recommendations for Interventional Trials (SPIRIT) checklist covers key ethical considerations for clinical trialists.

Having received ethics approval, researchers need to fulfil the requirements of their ethics approval, which involves secure storage of data and consent forms for the stipulated period, protection of participant confidentiality, notifying the ethics committee of any changes to the protocol or study materials or adverse events affecting any participants, and reporting on progress as requested (usually annually).

Regardless of whether a study needs ethical approval, all research must be conducted in an ethical way, to ensure the integrity of the findings. Many journals will require ethical clearance or evidence that this was not required prior to publication.

Last updated 15 January 2018