Background: Ethical concern has been raised with critical care randomized controlled trials in which the standard of care reflects a broad range of clinical practices. Commentators have argued that trials without an unrestricted control group, in which standard practices are implemented at the discretion of the attending physician, lack the ability to redefine the standard of care and might expose subjects to excessive harms due to an inability to stop early.
Objective: To develop a framework for analyzing control group selection for critical care trials.
Method: Ethical analysis.
Results: A key ethical variable in trial design is the extent with which the control group adequately reflects standard care practices. Such a control group might incorporate either the "unrestricted" practices of physicians or a protocol that specifies and restricts the parameters of standard practices. Control group selection should be determined with respect to the following ethical objectives of trial design: 1) clinical value, 2) scientific validity, 3) efficiency and feasibility, and 4) protection of human subjects. Because these objectives may conflict, control group selection will involve trade-offs and compromises. Trials using a protocolized rather than an unrestricted standard care control group will likely have enhanced validity. However, if the protocolized control group lacks representativeness to standard care practices, then trials that use such groups will offer less clinical value and could provide less assurance of protecting subjects compared with trials that use unrestricted control groups. For trials evaluating contrasting strategies that do not adequately represent standard practices, use of a third group that is more representative of standard practices will enhance clinical value and increase the ability to stop early if needed to protect subjects. These advantages might come at the expense of efficiency and feasibility.
Conclusion: Weighing and balancing the competing ethical objectives of trial design should be done for each trial.