August 12, 2019: Reflections From Judith Carrithers of the NIH Collaboratory’s Ethics and Regulatory Core

Judith Carrithers, JD

At the May 2019 meeting of the NIH Collaboratory Steering Committee, we talked with Judith Carrithers, coleader of the Ethics and Regulatory Core. The task of the Core is to develop a framework for conducting embedded pragmatic clinical trials (ePCTs) in an ethical manner and in compliance with federal and state regulations. Ms. Carrithers joined the Core last year prior to the start of the yearlong planning phase for 6 new UG3 Demonstration Projects. We asked her to reflect on the Core’s progress and challenges during the past year.

Please tell us about the Core’s recent accomplishments.

The Ethics and Regulatory Core is learning how to frame ethical and regulatory issues around ePCTs while talking with each study team to learn how their trial is going to work, what informed consent considerations they may have, and, for their population, what makes the most sense within the regulatory framework. By the time I joined, the Core had already gone through the first round of UH3 Demonstration Projects, and I was able to piggyback on the learning from that experience, which informed our interviews and discussions with the new UG3 studies last summer. The regulatory framework we’re working in is a little black, a little white—and a lot of gray. For ePCTs, and clinical trials in general, within that framework there are things it’s clear you can do and cannot do, and a lot of things where you’re using your best judgment in the context of a study.

“The regulatory framework we’re working in is a little black, a little white—and a lot of gray.”

What we see with pragmatic trials across those conducted in the Collaboratory is that many are clearly minimal-risk studies, so there is the possibility of managing informed consent in a different way. A written consent form is generally required under the federal regulations for studies that present more than minimal risk to participants. But if a trial is minimal risk, we can consider a waiver of consent or alteration of the consent process if traditional written consent affects the practicability of the trial. One focus of the Core’s work has been to study when a waiver or alteration of consent is appropriate in the various types of ePCTs. In addition, we explore what other methods could be used to advise patients that they’ve been enrolled in a research study, such as broadcast notification of the research placed in prominent locations, with contact information for questions.

From the inception of the Collaboratory, both the NIH and the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) have been involved in helping work through how to manage these issues in a way that respects individuals enrolled in a trial while also making it possible to conduct the trial without a lengthy informed consent process when it is not required under the regulations. We will continue to look at these issues with the new Demonstration Projects to get a better feel for emerging patterns. The Core has developed several publications addressing ethics and regulatory considerations for ePCTs, and we will continue to contribute to this growing body of knowledge to share with the larger research community.

What challenges lie ahead?

A big challenge is staying aware of how the regulatory framework may change during the course of the trial, and how those changes affect the conduct of a study. For example, the revised Common Rule impacted the way IRBs review research and investigators conduct their research. It’s also important to remember what we’ve learned as a research community—for example, we’re developing better ways of giving notice to patients that they’re enrolled in a trial. And the challenge in part is that studies have used different methods of notification with varying success, and so we need a way to compile that information into an accessible format to help future study teams decide how to apply those learnings to their study.

Our challenge is to build the grammar, the framework, and the thinking process for ethics and regulatory issues in pragmatic trials. Having resources like the Living Textbook available is helpful for researchers, providing insight into how others are framing these issues and conducting their trials.

Any words of advice for new ePCT investigators?

Sort out what part of the trial is research and what part is clinical care. This is essential for study teams to define so that they know what parts of the trial are subject to the federal regulations. It’s important to segment out and treat the clinical part of the study as clinical care. Within the research part, evaluate how the regulations apply. Think carefully about your trial and work through all the pragmatic pieces, for example:

  • What access to the electronic health record will you need?
  • How will you recruit participants?
  • If consent is required, how will you consent participants?

One of the strengths of the Core is that we’re able to work with study teams while they’re still finalizing the design of the trial, and together build on each others’ experiences, focus on specific issues, and in some cases, change their approach in order to make the study work better in the healthcare setting or with potentially large numbers of enrollees. I think the best resource for new investigators is meeting other researchers who have done this work and hear how they addressed and overcame challenges.

The Coordinating Center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Health Care Systems Research Collaboratory is supported by the NIH Common Fund through a cooperative agreement from the Office of Strategic Coordination within the Office of the NIH Director. Read more about the Ethics and Regulatory Core in the Living Textbook, and learn more about the NIH Collaboratory's other Core Working Groups.