Background Parental consent rates for neonatal interventional trials are significantly higher in Low and middle-income countries (LMIC) than in high-income countries, raising concerns about the credibility of the consent processes (Patterson et al PLOS One 2021). We conducted a mixed-methods study to understand the informed consent process in a neonatal cooling trial [Hypothermia for encephalopathy in low and middle-income countries (HELIX) trial] conducted in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Methods Term infants with neonatal encephalopathy, aged less than six hours were randomly allocated to cooling therapy or usual care, following informed parental consent. The consenting process was audio-video (A-V) recorded in all cases. We analysed the A-V records of the consent process using a 5-point Likert scale on three parameters – Empathy, Information, Autonomy. Additionally, we used exploratory observation method to capture relevant aspects of consent process and discussions between parents and professionals. Finally, we conducted in-depth interviews with a subgroup of 20 parents and 15 health care professionals. A thematic analysis was performed on the observations of A-V records and on the interview transcripts.
Results In HELIX trial, a total of 475 parents were approached, of which 408 (86%) consented. Of these, 294 A-V records were analysed. Median (Interquartile range) score for empathy, information, autonomy was 5 (0), 5 (1) and 5 (1) respectively. However, thematic analysis suggested that the parental decision to participate was based on a unreserved trust in the treating doctors, therapeutic misconception, and access to an expensive treatment free of cost. Most parents did not understand the concept of a clinical trial, nor the nature of the intervention. Lower levels of parental education and misinformation further convoluted the voluntary informed consent process. Parents were visibly incapacitated, and many told the doctor to do whatever is best for the baby. Clinicians lacked equipoise and were biased towards cooling therapy as it was already a standard of care in high-income countries, and this influenced parental decision making. However, the HELIX trial results subsequently showed cooling was harmful and increased mortality in these settings.
Conclusion Despite rigorous research governance and consent process, parental decisions were heavily influenced by situational incapacity and a trust in doctors to make the right decision on their behalf. Further research is required to identify culturally and context appropriate strategies to ensure truly informed trial participation.
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