- Informed Consent and Clinical Research
Informed consent is a powerful symbol of the commitment and impact of the new, interdisciplinary field of biomedical ethics that the Kennedy Institute has been so instrumental in developing. In the early years of biomedical ethics, there was considerable discussion about the nature of the doctor-patient relationship, about how it ought to be structured, and about how competing values within that relationship ought to be accommodated. By the 1970s and 1980s, the answer was for all practical purposes in. Biomedical ethics was engaged in a clearly reformist project, in step with the values of the times, to right a wrongful imbalance of power and control between physicians and patients.
The agenda was clear—to establish the moral authority of the patient to participate in medical decision making by placing respect for the autonomy of patients on the moral map of the medical community. The chief strategy that biomedical ethics adopted to accomplish this agenda was, of course, informed consent. Theories of autonomous action as well as informed consent were intentionally crafted to advance this reformist agenda.
In this paper, I examine how the theory of informed consent has fared in one particular realm of “the clinic” where, arguably, there has been considerable success. This is the realm of clinical research; research at the bedside where the patient is also the subject.
I rely heavily on the work of President Clinton’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, which I chaired. The Advisory Committee was established in response to exposés in the press about alleged secret experiments during World War II and the Cold War in which patients had been injected with plutonium without their apparent knowledge or consent. As part of its work, the Advisory Committee undertook an oral history project in which we interviewed eminent physicians about the norms and practices of human research in the 1940s and 1950s.
Drawing on these interviews, I argue here for two seemingly inconsistent conclusions. First, that the ethical standards for clinical research have changed dramatically in the last 50 years—particularly with respect to informed consent. Second, that despite these important changes, the human dynamics of clinical research in many respects remain unchanged.
How the World of Clinical Research Has Changed
During the forties and fifties, duties to obtain informed consent, whether for treatment or for research, were simply not part of the doctor-patient experience. [End Page 356]
As one physician told us:
In 1945, ‘50, the doctor . . . was king or queen. It never occurred to a doctor to ask for consent for anything. Doctors weren’t in the habit of telling the patients anything (either). They were in charge and nobody questioned their authority.(Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments 1996, p. 83)
This unquestioned authority extended to all decisions about the management of the patient, including whether patients were to receive experimental therapies or otherwise become the subjects of research or experimentation. Physicians were trained to be concerned with risk, and harm, and benefit, in keeping with the Hippocratic tradition. But in most institutions, the permission to try something new and to take unknown risks came, not from the patient, but from the chairman of the department.
In part, this broad license reflected the very newness of scientifically grounded medical practice. In the forties and fifties, many potentially therapeutic interventions were newly discovered and in this sense considered experimental, or at least innovative. The level of uncertainty about whether a treatment would work was generally high, whether the treatment was part of a research project or not. Moreover, the formalizing of medical science at the bedside was itself still in its infancy—it was not until 1948 that the first modern clinical trial in which patients were randomized to different treatment and control groups was reported in the literature. Much of the research of this period was informal and unsystematic.
Thus, it is not surprising that the physician’s authority to make treatment decisions extended to treatments that were innovative or experimental, regardless of whether these innovative treatments were the subject of formal scientific investigation. What is perhaps more surprising is that physicians often acted the same way—that...