Article Abstract

Ethical treatment of participants in public health research

Authors: Ghada K. Al Tajir


The twentieth century witnessed a succession of heinous experiments on human subjects in the name of science. The deplorable nature of these experiments led to the development of several guidelines that laid down the principles of research ethics. Respect, beneficence, and justice are the principles that form the foundation of research ethics today. These principles should be implemented through the channels of the informed consent process, privacy and confidentiality, risk benefit analysis, and fair recruitment. Proper implementation of research ethics ensures the protection of the rights and well-being of the participants. Some individuals are considered to be “vulnerable” in the research context because their autonomy is either diminished or lacking. Examples include children, some elderly persons, those with temporary or permanent cognitive impairment, prisoners, and refugees. Vulnerable groups require additional protection measures if they are involved in research. Public health research differs from general health research that necessitates additional ethical considerations. Research involving public health interventions or research conducted during public emergencies, such as natural disasters and disease outbreaks, has unique ethical challenges. Furthermore, in public health research, an understanding or familiarity with the community in which the research will be done is essential to ethical conduct of research. Research ethics committees [otherwise known as institutional review boards (IRB)] play a central role in research involving human participants. The proposed research must be reviewed and approved prior to initiation and monitored thereafter with ongoing reviews of safety reports, progress reports, and emerging information or circumstances that may impact the study. A substantial number of conditions need to be met to ensure research starts and then remains ethical. Researchers should be qualified by education, training, and experience to take on the role of investigators. The scientific aspects of the research should be robust and valid and the research itself should be purposeful. It is important that ethical considerations be a constant, integrated into the research undertaking, from inception right through to the dissemination and or sharing of the results.