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Humanisation of medicine and research ethics

5 June 2024

Research ethics in medicine is a set of principles and guidelines designed to ensure that human research is conducted in a responsible manner that respects the dignity, rights and well-being of the participants. It is the foundation on which the humanisation of medicine is based, as every research activity should be carried out with full respect for the humanity and individual needs of patients.

Underpinning research ethics in medicine are four main bioethical principles, which were formulated by Beauchamp and Childress in their classic work 'Principles of Biomedical Ethics'. These are:

Autonomy - respect for the decisions and choices of research participants; this requires that participants are fully informed about the study and give informed consent.

Charity - acting for the benefit of the participant, including seeking to maximise potential benefits and minimise possible harms associated with the study.

No harm - an undertaking not to cause harm to research participants.

Justice - fair treatment of participants and equal access to the benefits of research.

Ethics committees play a key role in monitoring medical research, ensuring that it is designed and conducted in accordance with research ethics. Prior to the start of a study, the ethics committee assesses its protocol in terms of the potential risks and benefits for participants, how informed consent is obtained and methods to protect participants' personal data.

Importance of informed consent in medical research

Informed consent is a cornerstone of ethical medical research and a key expression of the humanisation of medicine. This process ensures that each research participant is fully aware of all aspects of the study, including its purpose, methods, potential benefits and risks, before making an informed decision to participate. Informed consent emphasises respect for the patient's autonomy and right to self-determination, which is in line with ethical and humanistic values in medicine.

Informed consent is based on several key elements, which together ensure that participants are properly informed and that their participation in the study is voluntary:

  • Full information: Participants must be provided with comprehensive information about the study, including its objectives, methods, expected benefits, potential risks and discomfort, procedures and participant rights, including the right to withdraw from the study at any time without consequence.
  • Understanding: Study staff must ensure that the participant has understood all the information given. This may require additional clarification or answers to the participant's questions.
  • Voluntary: Consent must be freely given, without any coercion, manipulation or undue persuasion.
  • Documentation: The informed consent process usually requires the participant to sign a document confirming their informed consent to participate in the study.

Informed consent represents a profound respect for the individuality of each patient and their right to self-determination. In the context of the humanisation of medicine, this process emphasises that patients are active participants in medical care and not just passive recipients of health services. It gives patients control over decisions about their health and treatment, which can lead to greater involvement in the treatment process and better health outcomes.

Despite its fundamental importance, the process of obtaining informed consent faces numerous challenges. These include the difficulties of ensuring that information is communicated in a way that can be understood by those without medical training, and ensuring that the decision to participate is completely free from external influences. In addition, in the context of long-term studies, consent may need to be re-obtained in the event of changes to the study design.

Ethical challenges in clinical research

Clinical trials are an indispensable part of medical progress, enabling the development of new drugs and therapies. However, conducting research on human subjects brings with it a number of ethical challenges that must be carefully considered to ensure the safety of participants and respect for their rights.

One of the main ethical challenges in clinical trials is the testing of new drugs and therapies that may involve unknown risks and side effects. This challenge involves ensuring that the potential benefits of the research outweigh the risks to participants. Accurately informing participants of all known risks, possible benefits and alternative treatment options is key here.

Another challenge concerns the fair and ethical selection of research participants. It is important that the recruitment process is transparent and free from discrimination. Participants should be selected on the basis of scientific criteria and not on the basis of ease of recruitment or availability. In addition, researchers must ensure that they do not use vulnerable groups, such as people with limited capacity to consent.

A balance also needs to be struck between seeking scientific progress and ensuring maximum safety and well-being for research participants. This requires not only careful monitoring and risk assessment during research, but also a willingness to modify or terminate a study when data indicate unacceptable risks to participants.

Research ethics and the humanisation of medicine

Research ethics and the humanisation of medicine are inextricably linked, as both concepts focus on ensuring the well-being and respect of patients in medicine. Research ethics protects research participants from potential harm by ensuring that their wellbeing is always a priority. Through principles such as informed consent, patients are assured that their rights and dignity are respected.

Adherence to ethical principles in clinical trials guarantees fairness and equity in access to research. Every patient, regardless of background, has the chance to benefit from new therapeutic options. An ethical approach to clinical trials builds patient trust in the healthcare system. Knowing that research is conducted fairly and respectfully, patients are more likely to cooperate and participate in the treatment process.