Agreement Doesn’t Mean Consent at NWABR and Quorum Review IRB Conference

by Marie-Térèse Little, PhD

The ultimate purpose of the informed consent process in research involving human participants (subjects), is to provide information to the participants about the purpose of the research, its procedures, and the risks, potential benefits, and alternatives so that the individual understands this information and can make voluntary decisions whether to enroll and continue to participate in a given clinical trial. This informed consent process should allow for rational decision making and foster self-determination and an expression of autonomy. It should include information that is reasonably expected; not only a document of consent but an opportunity for a meaningful and intuitive discussion between the researcher and the potential participants with sufficient time allowed for questions and concerns. Participants should ultimately be given the opportunity to obtain, understand, and to act on the information.

At the Revolutionizing Informed Consent conference, there was a general consensus from all the speakers that our current approach to the informed consent process is troubling at best and it is clearly not serving our participants well.

Poignantly acknowledged by every speaker, the audience was reminded that the current models employed to “obtain consent” involve static, long (often over 20 pages), complex documents that are filled with dense, scientific and medical language and confusing regulatory and legalistic jargon. The informed consent document (ICD) is often a defensive deed designed to protect the institutions and the sponsors rather than protecting the participants in a proactive manner. Emphasis is on disclosure rather than learning. The complexity and length of the ICD results in poor readability. Furthermore, the needs of the participants vary greatly and the inflexible templates of the ICD often involve over explanations of the worst-case scenario. This is compounded by the short windows of time allotted to convey the overall message and the difficulty in quantifying what the participant really understands about the study and what they have consented to. Agreement without understanding is not consent. – JLWilbanks.

These difficulties encountered by participants, researchers and the ethics review community in the informed consent process were unambiguously acknowledged and openly demonstrated in the Keynote address titled “Informing the Research Participant: Emerging Models, Trends, and Regulatory Requirements” delivered by Mr. Kevin Hudziak, Emergent Strategy Consultant and leader of the Informed Consent Transformation project at Eli Lily and Company. Mr. Hudziak also questioned the current approaches and suggested that we, as Institutional Review Board (IRB) or Research Ethics Board (REB) members and staff, researchers and investigators, regulatory personnel and sponsors, need to uncouple Informed/Consent and treat it not as a single incident but an ongoing process that informs first and consents second. The Keynote address also served to introduce the trends in informed consent including e-consent and tiered, progressive, remote, and dynamic consent and the concept that innovation and technology can be leveraged to revolutionize the informed consent process.


Marie-Térèse Little, PhD is a volunteer member of Island Health clinical research ethics board on Vancouver Island, B.C. She worked at the Fred Hutch developing novel strategies for reduced intensity bone marrow transplants and she now lives in Victoria, BC with her family. Marie-Térèse is the founder and chief consultant at 4th Dimension Biomedical Research Communications ( where complex bio-medical and scientific information is distilled into clear, meaningful and comprehensible communications. This is her last entry for this conference. We thank her for her time and talent in serving her regional biomedical community, and the Western IRB for providing supplementary funding for her and other participants in 2015.

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