Bureaucracy stifles medical research in Britain: a tale of three trials

BMC Med Res Methodol. 2012 Aug 16:12:122. doi: 10.1186/1471-2288-12-122.


Background: Recent developments aiming to standardise and streamline processes of gaining the necessary approvals to carry out research in the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom (UK), have resulted in lengthy and costly delays. The national UK governmental Department of Health's Research Governance Framework (RGF) for Health and Social Care requires that appropriate checks be conducted before research involving human participants, their organs, tissues or data can commence in the NHS. As a result, medical research has been subjected to increased regulation and governance, with the requirement for approvals from numerous regulatory and monitoring bodies. In addition, the processes and outcomes of the attribution of costs in NHS research have caused additional difficulties for researchers. The purpose of this paper is to illustrate, through three trial case studies, the difficulties encountered during the set-up and recruitment phases of these trials, related to gaining the necessary ethical and governance approvals and applying for NHS costs to undertake and deliver the research.

Methods: Empirical evidence about delays and difficulties related to regulation and governance of medical research was gathered during the period 2009-2010 from three UK randomised controlled trials with sites in England, Wales and Scotland (1. SAFER 2- an emergency care based trial of a protocol for paramedics to refer patients directly to community based falls services; 2. COnStRUCT- a trial of two drugs for acute ulcerative colitis; and 3. Family Links - a trial of a public health intervention, a 10 week community based parenting programme). Findings and recommendations were reported in response to a call for evidence from The Academy of Medical Sciences regarding difficulties encountered in conducting medical research arising from R&D governance and regulation, to inform national policy.

Results: Difficulties and delays in navigating and gaining the appropriate approvals and NHS costs required to undertake the research were encountered in all three trials, at various points in the bureaucratic processes of ethical and research and information governance approvals. Conduct of each of the three trials was delayed by at least 12 months, with costs increasing by 30 - 40%.

Conclusions: Whilst the three trials encountered a variety of challenges, there were common issues. The processes for gaining approvals were overly complex and differed between sites and UK countries; guidance about processes was unclear; and information regarding how to define and claim NHS costs for undertaking the research was inconsistent. The competitive advantage of a publicly funded, open access health system for undertaking health services research and clinical trials within the UK has been outweighed in recent years by stifling bureaucratic structures and processes for governance of research. The recommendations of the Academy of Medical Sciences are welcomed, and the effects of their implementation are awaited with interest.

Trial registration numbers: SAFER 2: ISRCTN 60481756; COnStRUCT: ISRCTN22663589; Family Links: ISRCTN 13929732.

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / ethics
  • Biomedical Research / standards
  • Drug Approval*
  • Government Agencies
  • Humans
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic*
  • State Medicine
  • United Kingdom

Associated data

  • ISRCTN/ISRCTN13929732
  • ISRCTN/ISRCTN22663589
  • ISRCTN/ISRCTN60481756