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From OHRP on Coercion and Undue Influence

What does it mean to minimize the possibility of coercion or undue influence?

The HHS regulations state that “An investigator shall seek such consent only under circumstances that provide the prospective subject or the representative sufficient opportunity to consider whether or not to participate and that minimize the possibility of coercion or undue influence” (45 CFR 46.116). This requirement applies to all nonexempt human subjects research not eligible for a waiver of the consent requirements.

Coercion occurs when an overt or implicit threat of harm is intentionally presented by one person to another in order to obtain compliance. For example, an investigator might tell a prospective subject that he or she will lose access to needed health services if he or she does not participate in the research.

Undue influence, by contrast, often occurs through an offer of an excessive or inappropriate reward or other overture in order to obtain compliance. For example, an investigator might promise psychology students extra credit if they participate in the research. If that is the only way a student can earn extra credit, then the investigator is unduly influencing potential subjects. If, however, she offers comparable non-research alternatives for earning extra credit, the possibility of undue influence is minimized.

In addition to undue influence that can arise with the offering of rewards, undue influence also can be subtle. For example, patients might feel obligated to participate in research if their physician is also the investigator, or students might feel pressure to participate in research if everyone else in the class is doing so. Because influence is contextual, and undue influence is likely to depend on an individual’s situation, it is often difficult for IRBs to draw a bright line delimiting undue influence. It is up to the IRB to use its discretion in determining which circumstances give rise to undue influence. For example, an IRB might consider whether the informed consent process will take place at an appropriate time and in an appropriate setting, and whether the prospective subject may feel pressured into acting quickly or be discouraged from seeking advice from others.

Because of their relative nature and lack of clear-cut standards on the boundaries of inappropriate and appropriate forms of influence, investigators and IRBs must be vigilant about minimizing the possibility for coercion and undue influence. Reasonable assessments can be made to minimize the likelihood of undue influence or coercion occurring. For example, IRBs may restrict levels of financial or nonfinancial incentives for participation and should carefully review the information to be disclosed to potential subjects to ensure that the incentives and how they will be provided are clearly described. Known benefits should be stated accurately but not exaggerated, and potential or uncertain benefits should be stated as such, with clear language indicating how much is known about the uncertainty or likelihood of these potential benefits.

The regulatory requirements for IRB review and approval also specify the need for the IRB -- in order to approve research covered by the HHS regulations -- to ensure that “When some or all of the subjects are likely to be vulnerable to coercion or undue influence, such as children, prisoners, pregnant women, mentally disabled persons, or economically or educationally disadvantaged persons, additional safeguards have been included in the study to protect the rights and welfare of these subjects” (45 CFR 46.111(b)). Thus, inducements that would ordinarily be acceptable in some populations may become undue influences for these vulnerable subject groups.

When does compensating subjects undermine informed consent or parental permission?

The HHS regulations require that “An investigator shall seek such consent only under circumstances that provide the prospective subject or the representative sufficient opportunity to consider whether or not to participate and that minimize the possibility of coercion or undue influence” (45 CFR 46.116).

Paying research subjects in exchange for their participation is a common and, in general, acceptable practice. However, difficult questions must be addressed by the IRB. For example, how much money should research subjects receive, and for what should subjects receive payment -- their time, inconvenience, discomfort, or some other consideration -- IRBs must be sensitive to whether any aspect of the proposed remuneration will be an undue influence, thus interfering with the potential subjects’ ability to give voluntary informed consent. In no case should remuneration be viewed as a way of offsetting risks; that is, it should not be considered a benefit to be weighed against study risks. The level of remuneration should not be so high as to cause a prospective subject to accept risks that he or she would not accept in the absence of the remuneration. This same principle would apply to remuneration offered to parents whose children are prospective subjects.

Remuneration for participation in research should be just or fair. However, the specifics of each protocol will influence how those determinations are made. Both researchers and IRBs need to be familiar with the study population and the context of the research in order to make reasonable judgments about how compensation will affect participation. Wherever the remuneration is set, it will influence the decisions of some more than others. In particular, it will be more important to those for whom it will make a significant financial difference. Thus, IRBs should be cautious that payments are not so high that they create an “undue influence” or offer undue inducement that could compromise a prospective subject’s examination and evaluation of the risks or affect the voluntariness of his or her choices.

Protocols submitted to IRBs should indicate and justify proposed levels and purposes of remuneration, which also should be clearly stated in the accompanying consent forms. IRBs may need to request of the investigator some plan for monitoring subject recruitment to ensure that such inducements do not result in inequitable subject recruitment (e.g., recruiting only economically disadvantaged individuals).

Some institutions have adopted policies regarding the recruitment and payment of volunteers. IRBs and investigators should ensure that the consent process includes a detailed account of the terms of payment, including a description of the conditions under which a subject would receive partial or no payment (e.g., what will happen if he or she withdraws part way through the research or the investigator removes a subject from the study for medical or noncompliance reasons).

Finally, in studies of considerable duration or that involve multiple interactions or interventions, OHRP recommends that payment be prorated for the time of participation in the study rather than delayed until study completion, because the latter could unduly influence a subject’s decision to exercise his or her right to withdraw at any time. For example, if the study is conducted over a period of 6 months, there might be a monthly or bi-monthly payment. Or, if the study involves 12 sessions, there might be payment after every two sessions.

Can non-financial enrollment incentives constitute undue influence?

Yes, in certain circumstances. Non-monetary incentives (e.g., extra credit for students, access to services or programs) also can create undue influence on a potential subject’s decision about research participation. Informed consent always must be voluntary (45 CFR 46.116).

IRBs should ensure that non-financial incentives are not so great as to diminish the voluntariness of consent or cloud someone’s appreciation of risks or potential benefits that might be gained from participating in a study (45 CFR 46.116). Moreover, it must be clear that choosing to not participate will not adversely affect an individual’s relationship with the institution or its staff or the provision of services in any way (e.g., loss of credits or access to programs) (45 CFR 46.116(a)(8)).

Overt coercion (e.g., threatening loss of services or access to programs to which the potential subjects are otherwise entitled) is never appropriate. However, it might be permissible to provide incentives to participate that do not constitute undue influence. Using enrollment incentives to recruit subjects may be ethically permissible as long as the IRB has determined that, although they may be a factor in a subject’s decision to participate, they have not served to unduly influence the subject to participate. To make this determination, IRBs should know who the subject population will be, what incentives are being offered, and the conditions under which the offer will be made.

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