Research in end-of-life settings: an ethical inquiry

J Pain Palliat Care Pharmacother. 2010 Sep;24(3):244-50. doi: 10.3109/15360288.2010.493579.


A fundamental tension surrounds the ethics of conducting research in vulnerable populations, and specifically, research involving patients at or near the end-of-life. In Palliative Medicine, these patients' care has historically been based on compassion, clinical judgment and experience, and anecdote rather than on data generated through high-quality clinical trials. A robust evidence base to support clinical practice in the end-of-life setting is lacking. Multiple ethical objections to the conduct of research at the end of life have impeded efforts to build such an evidence base. Arguments can be categorized into claims that the goals of research conflict with the goals of care; research unduly burdens vulnerable patients and families/caregivers; genuine equipoise does not exist; and research in the palliative care setting is too difficult. The authors explore and respond to these objections, noting the vital importance of research at this stage of the illness trajectory. The authors conclude that barriers to palliative care research are surmountable, and, indeed, that the "research imperative" and principles laid out in the Belmont Report of 1979 require us to rigorously study clinical interventions used for palliative care patients-so as to provide optimal safety and outcomes for present and future patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Humans
  • Palliative Care / ethics*
  • Research*
  • Terminal Care / ethics*
  • Terminally Ill / psychology*