Does Clinical Equipoise Apply to Cluster Randomized Trials in Health Research?
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This article is part of a series of papers examining ethical issues in cluster randomized trials (CRTs) in health research. In the introductory paper in this series, Weijer and colleagues set out six areas of inquiry that must be addressed if the cluster trial is to be set on a firm ethical foundation. This paper addresses the third of the questions posed, namely, does clinical equipoise apply to CRTs in health research? The ethical principle of beneficence is the moral obligation not to harm needlessly and, when possible, to promote the welfare of research subjects. Two related ethical problems have been discussed in the CRT literature. First, are control groups that receive only usual care unduly disadvantaged? Second, when accumulating data suggests the superiority of one intervention in a trial, is there an ethical obligation to act?In individually randomized trials involving patients, similar questions are addressed by the concept of clinical equipoise, that is, the ethical requirement that, at the start of a trial, there be a state of honest, professional disagreement in the community of expert practitioners as to the preferred treatment. Since CRTs may not involve physician-researchers and patient-subjects, the applicability of clinical equipoise to CRTs is uncertain. Here we argue that clinical equipoise may be usefully grounded in a trust relationship between the state and research subjects, and, as a result, clinical equipoise is applicable to CRTs. Clinical equipoise is used to argue that control groups receiving only usual care are not disadvantaged so long as the evidence supporting the experimental and control interventions is such that experts would disagree as to which is preferred. Further, while data accumulating during the course of a CRT may favor one intervention over another, clinical equipoise supports continuing the trial until the results are likely to be broadly convincing, often coinciding with the planned completion of the trial. Finally, clinical equipoise provides research ethics committees with formal and procedural guidelines that form an important part of the assessment of the benefits and harms of CRTs in health research.