Pilot and feasibility studies (PAFS) often have complex objectives aimed at assessing feasibility of conducting a larger study. These may not be clear to participants in pilot studies.
Here, we aimed to assess the transparency of informed consent in PAFS by investigating whether researchers communicate, through patient information leaflets and consent forms, key features of the studies. We collected this data from original versions of these documents submitted for ethics approval and the final approved documents for PAFS submitted to the Hamilton Integrated Research Ethics Board, Canada.
One hundred eighty-four PAFS, submitted for ethics approval from 2004 to 2020, were included, and we found that of the approved consent documents which were provided to participants, 83.2% (153) stated the terms “pilot” or “feasibility” in their title, 12% (22) stated the definition of a pilot/feasibility study, 42.4% (78) of the studies stated their intent to assess feasibility, 19.6% (36) stated the specific feasibility objectives, 1.6% (3) stated the criteria for success of the pilot study, and 0.5% (1) stated all five of these criteria. After ethics review, a small increase in transparency occurred, ranging from 1.6 to 2.8% depending on the criteria. By extracting data from the protocols of the PAFS, we found that 73.9% (136) stated intent to assess feasibility, 71.2% (131) stated specific feasibility objectives, and 33.7% (62) stated criteria for success of the study to lead to a larger study.
The transparency of informed consent in PAFS is inadequate and needs to be specifically addressed by research ethics guidelines. Research ethics boards and researchers ought to be made aware and mindful of best practices of informed consent in the context of PAFS.