Should desperate volunteers be included in randomised controlled trials?

ALLMARK, P. J. and MASON, S. (2005). Should desperate volunteers be included in randomised controlled trials? Journal of Medical Ethics, 32 (9), 548-553.


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Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) sometimes recruit participants who are desperate to receive the experimental treatment. Some claim this practice is unethical for at least three reasons. The first is that the notion of equipoise, which is often used as a justification for running a RCT, is subjective and value-based. Desperate volunteers are clearly not in equipoise and it is their values that should take precedence. The second is that clinicians who enter patients onto trials are disavowing their therapeutic obligation to deliver the best treatment to patients; they are following trial protocols rather than delivering individualised care. Research is not treatment; its ethical justification is different. Consent is crucial. This leads to the third reason: desperate volunteers do not give a proper consent; they are, in effect, coerced. We begin our reply by advocating a notion of equipoise based on, first, expert knowledge and, second, widely shared values. Where such collective, expert equipoise exists there is a prima facie case for a RCT. Next we argue that trial entry does not involve clinicians’ disavowing their therapeutic obligation; individualised care based on whims and fancies is not in patients’ best interest. Finally, we argue that where equipoise exists it is acceptable to limit access to experimental agents. In the cases desperate volunteers are not coerced because their desperation does not translate into a right to receive what they desire.

Item Type: Article
Additional Information: This article has been accepted for publication in JME following peer review. The definitive copyedited, typeset version [ALLMARK, Peter J. & MASON, Su (2006) Should desperate volunteers be included in randomised controlled trials? Journal of Medical Ethics 32(9), 548-553.] is available online at :
Uncontrolled Keywords: RCT, Equipoise, Desperate volunteers, ethics
Research Institute, Centre or Group - Does NOT include content added after October 2018: Centre for Health and Social Care Research
Identification Number:
Page Range: 548-553
Depositing User: Ann Betterton
Date Deposited: 09 Aug 2007
Last Modified: 18 Mar 2021 14:17

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