Inadequacy of ethical conduct and reporting of stepped wedge cluster randomized trials: Results from a systematic review

Monica Taljaard, Karla Hemming, Lena Shah, Bruno Giraudeau, Jeremy M Grimshaw, Charles Weijer
Clinical Trials: Journal of the Society for Clinical Trials 2017, 14 (4): 333-341
Background/aims The use of the stepped wedge cluster randomized design is rapidly increasing. This design is commonly used to evaluate health policy and service delivery interventions. Stepped wedge cluster randomized trials have unique characteristics that complicate their ethical interpretation. The 2012 Ottawa Statement provides comprehensive guidance on the ethical design and conduct of cluster randomized trials, and the 2010 CONSORT extension for cluster randomized trials provides guidelines for reporting. Our aims were to assess the adequacy of the ethical conduct and reporting of stepped wedge trials to date, focusing on research ethics review and informed consent. Methods We conducted a systematic review of stepped wedge cluster randomized trials in health research published up to 2014 in English language journals. We extracted details of study intervention and data collection procedures, as well as reporting of research ethics review and informed consent. Two reviewers independently extracted data from each trial; discrepancies were resolved through discussion. We identified the presence of any research participants at the cluster level and the individual level. We assessed ethical conduct by tabulating reporting of research ethics review and informed consent against the presence of research participants. Results Of 32 identified stepped wedge trials, only 24 (75%) reported review by a research ethics committee, and only 16 (50%) reported informed consent from any research participants-yet, all trials included research participants at some level. In the subgroup of 20 trials with research participants at cluster level, only 4 (20%) reported informed consent from such participants; in 26 trials with individual-level research participants, only 15 (58%) reported their informed consent. Interventions (regardless of whether targeting cluster- or individual-level participants) were delivered at the group level in more than two-thirds of trials; nine trials (28%) had no identifiable data collected from any research participants. Overall, only three trials (9%) indicated that a waiver of consent had been granted by a research ethics committee. When considering the combined requirement of research ethics review and informed consent (or a waiver), only one in three studies were compliant. Conclusion The ethical conduct and reporting of key ethical protections in stepped wedge trials, namely, research ethics review and informed consent, are inadequate. We recommend that stepped wedge trials be classified as research and reviewed and approved by a research ethics committee. We also recommend that researchers appropriately identify research participants (which may include health professionals), seek informed consent or appeal to an ethics committee for a waiver of consent, and include explicit details of research ethics approval and informed consent in the trial report.

Full Text Links

Find Full Text Links for this Article


You are not logged in. Sign Up or Log In to join the discussion.

Related Papers

Remove bar
Read by QxMD icon Read

Save your favorite articles in one place with a free QxMD account.


Search Tips

Use Boolean operators: AND/OR

diabetic AND foot
diabetes OR diabetic

Exclude a word using the 'minus' sign

Virchow -triad

Use Parentheses

water AND (cup OR glass)

Add an asterisk (*) at end of a word to include word stems

Neuro* will search for Neurology, Neuroscientist, Neurological, and so on

Use quotes to search for an exact phrase

"primary prevention of cancer"
(heart or cardiac or cardio*) AND arrest -"American Heart Association"