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What is informed consent and when, why, and how must it be obtained?

The informed consent process involves three key features: (1) disclosing to potential research subjects information needed to make an informed decision; (2) facilitating the understanding of what has been disclosed; and (3) promoting the voluntariness of the decision about whether or not to participate in the research. Informed consent must be legally effective and prospectively obtained. HHS regulations at 45 CFR 46.116 and 45 CFR 46.117 describe the informed consent requirements.

The informed consent process is the critical communication link between the prospective human subject and an investigator, beginning with the initial approach of an investigator to the potential subject (e.g., through a flyer, brochure, or any advertisement regarding the research study) and continuing until the completion of the research study. For the purposes of the HHS regulations at 45 CFR part 46, “investigators” are individuals who conduct human subjects research projects, including individuals directly involved in seeking the voluntary informed consent of potential subjects. Investigators can include physicians, scientists, nurses, administrative staff, teachers, and students, among others.

The informed consent process should be an active process of sharing information between the investigator and the prospective subject. The exchange of information between the investigator and prospective subjects can occur via one or more of the following modes of communication, among others: face-to-face contact; mail; telephone; video; or fax. Prospective subjects should be provided with ample opportunity to ask questions and seek clarification from the investigator. The prospective subjects should be in a position to freely decide whether to initially enroll in the research, or later, to withdraw or continue participating in the research. The informed consent process should ensure that all critical information about a study is completely disclosed, and that prospective subjects or their legally authorized representatives adequately understand the research so that they can make informed choices.

The procedures used in seeking and obtaining informed consent should be designed to communicate with the subject population in terms that they can understand. Information about a research project must be presented in such a way that enables each person to voluntarily decide whether or not to participate as a research subject. Thus, the information must be conveyed in language understandable to those being asked to participate as subjects in the research (45 CFR 46.116).

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