Huge variation in obtaining ethical permission for a non-interventional observational study in Europe

BMC Med Ethics. 2019 Jun 3;20(1):39. doi: 10.1186/s12910-019-0373-y.


Background: Ethical approval (EA) must be obtained before medical research can start. We describe the differences in EA for an pseudonymous, non-interventional, observational European study.

Methods: Sixteen European national coordinators (NCs) of the international study on very old intensive care patients answered an online questionnaire concerning their experience getting EA.

Results: N = 8/16 of the NCs could apply at one single national ethical committee (EC), while the others had to apply to various regional ECs and/or individual hospital institutional research boards (IRBs). The time between applying for EA and the first decision varied between 7 days and 300 days. In 9/16 informed consent from the patient was not deemed necessary; in 7/16 informed consent was required from the patient or relatives. The upload of coded data to a central database required additional information in 14/16. In 4/16 the NCs had to ask separate approval to keep a subject identification code list to de-pseudonymize the patients if questions would occur. Only 2/16 of the NCs agreed that informed consent was necessary for this observational study. Overall, 6/16 of the NCs were satisfied with the entire process and 8/16 were (very) unsatisfied. 11/16 would welcome a European central EC that would judge observational studies for all European countries.

Discussion: Variations in the process and prolonged time needed to get EA for observational studies hampers inclusion of patients in some European countries. This might have a negative influence on the external validity. Further harmonization of ethical approval process across Europe is welcomed for low-risk observational studies.

Conclusion: Getting ethical approval for low-risk, non-interventional, observational studies varies enormously across European countries.

MeSH terms

  • Ethical Review*
  • Ethics Committees, Research / organization & administration
  • Ethics Committees, Research / statistics & numerical data
  • Europe
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent / ethics
  • Observational Studies as Topic / ethics*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Time Factors