Written versus verbal consent: a qualitative study of stakeholder views of consent procedures used at the time of recruitment into a peripartum trial conducted in an emergency setting.
Lawton J., Hallowell N., Snowdon C., Norman JE., Carruthers K., Denison FC.
BACKGROUND: Obtaining prospective written consent from women to participate in trials when they are experiencing an obstetric emergency is challenging. Alternative consent pathways, such as gaining verbal consent at enrolment followed, later, by obtaining written consent, have been advocated by some clinicians and bioethicists but have received little empirical attention. We explored women's and staff views about the consent procedures used during the internal pilot of a trial (GOT-IT), where the protocol permitted staff to gain verbal consent at recruitment. METHODS: Interviews with staff (n = 27) and participating women (n = 22). Data were analysed thematically and interviews were cross-compared to identify differences and similarities in participants' views about the consent procedures used. RESULTS: Women and some staff highlighted benefits to obtaining verbal consent at trial enrolment, including expediting recruitment and reducing the burden on those left exhausted by their births. However, most staff with direct responsibility for taking consent expressed extreme reluctance to proceed with enrolment until they had obtained written consent, despite being comfortable using verbal procedures in their clinical practice. To account for this resistance, staff drew a strong distinction between research and clinical care and suggested that a higher level of consent was needed when recruiting into trials. In doing so, staff emphasised the need to engage women in reflexive decision-making and highlighted the role that completing the consent form could play in enabling and evidencing this process. While most staff cited their ethical responsibilities to women, they also voiced concerns that the absence of a signed consent form at recruitment could expose them to greater risk of litigation were an individual to experience a complication during the trial. Inexperience of recruiting into peripartum trials and limited availability of staff trained to take consent also reinforced preferences for obtaining written consent at recruitment. CONCLUSIONS: While alternative consent pathways have an important role to play in advancing emergency medicine research, and may be appreciated by potential recruits, they may give rise to unintended ethical and logistical challenges for staff. Staff would benefit from training and support to increase their confidence and willingness to recruit into trials using alternative consent pathways. TRIAL REGISTRATION: This qualitative research was undertaken as part of the GOT-IT Trial (trial registration number: ISCRTN 88609453 ). Date of registration 26/03/2014.