Objectives: To research the lay public's understanding of equipoise and randomisation in randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and to look at why information on this may not be not taken in or remembered, as well as the effects of providing information designed to overcome barriers.
Design: Investigations were informed by an update of systematic review on patients' understanding of consent information in clinical trials, and by relevant theory and evidence from experimental psychology. Nine investigations were conducted with nine participants.
Setting: Access (return to education), leisure and vocational courses at Further Education Colleges in the Midlands, UK.
Participants: Healthy adults with a wide range of educational backgrounds and ages.
Investigations: Participants read hypothetical scenarios and wrote brief answers to subsequent questions. Sub-samples of participants were interviewed individually to elaborate on their written answers. Participants' background assumptions concerning equipoise and randomisation were examined and ways of helping participants recognise the scientific benefits of randomisation were explored.
Main outcome measures: Judgments on allocation methods; treatment preferences; the acceptability of random allocation; whether or not individual doctors could be completely unsure about the best treatment; whether or not doctors should reveal treatment preferences under conditions of collective equipoise; and how sure experts would be about the best treatment following random allocation vs doctor/patient choice. Assessments of understanding hypothetical trial information.
Results: Recent literature continues to report trial participants' failure to understand or remember information about randomisation and equipoise, despite the provision of clear and readable trial information leaflets. In current best practice, written trial information describes what will happen without offering accessible explanations. As a consequence, patients may create their own incorrect interpretations and consent or refusal may be inadequately informed. In six investigations, most participants identified which methods of allocation were random, but judged the random allocation methods to be unacceptable in a trial context; the mere description of a treatment as new was insufficient to engender a preference for it over a standard treatment; around half of the participants denied that a doctor could be completely unsure about the best treatment. A majority of participants judged it unacceptable for a doctor to suggest letting chance decide when uncertain of the best treatment, and, in the absence of a justification for random allocation, participants did not recognise scientific benefits of random allocation over normal treatment allocation methods. The pattern of results across three intervention studies suggests that merely supplementing written trial information with an explanation is unlikely to be helpful. However, when people manage to focus on the trial's aim of increasing knowledge (as opposed to making treatment decisions about individuals), and process an explanation actively, they may be helped to understand the scientific reasons for random allocation.
Conclusions: This research was not carried out in real healthcare settings. However, participants who could correctly identify random allocation methods, yet judged random allocation unacceptable, doubted the possibility of individual equipoise and saw no scientific benefits of random allocation over doctor/patient choice, are unlikely to draw upon contrasting views if invited to enter a real clinical trial. This suggests that many potential trial participants may have difficulty understanding and remembering trial information that conforms to current best practice in its descriptions of randomisation and equipoise. Given the extent of the disparity between the assumptions underlying trial design and the assumptions held by the lay public, the solution is unlikely to be simple. Nevertheless, the results suggest that including an accessible explanation of the scientific benefits of randomisation may be beneficial provided potential participants are also enabled to reflect on the trial's aim of advancing knowledge, and to think actively about the information presented. Further areas for consideration include: the identification of effective combinations of written and oral information; helping participants to reflect on the aim of advancing knowledge; and an evidence-based approach to leaflet construction.