Informing the Uninformed: Optimizing the Consent Message Using a Fractional Factorial Design

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Abstract

IMPORTANCE

Research information should be presented in a manner that promotes understanding. However, many parents and research subjects have difficulty understanding and making informed decisions.

OBJECTIVE

To examine the effect of different communication strategies on parental understanding of research information.

DESIGN

Observational study from January 2010 to June 2012 using a fractional factorial design.

SETTING

Large tertiary care children's hospital.

PARTICIPANTS

Six hundred forty parents of children scheduled for elective surgery.

INTERVENTIONS

Parents were randomized to receive information about a hypothetical pain trial presented in 1 of 16 consent documents containing different combinations of 5 selected communication strategies (ie, length, readability, processability [formatting], graphical display, and supplemental verbal disclosure).

MAIN OUTCOME AND MEASURES

Parents were interviewed to determine their understanding of the study elements (eg, protocol and alternatives) and their gist (main point) and verbatim (actual) understanding of the risks and benefits.

RESULTS

Main effects for understanding were found for processability, readability, message length, use of graphics, and verbal discussion. Consent documents with high processability, eighth-grade reading level, and graphics resulted in significantly greater gist and verbatim understanding compared with forms without these attributes (mean difference, 0.57; 95% CI, 0.26–0.88, number of correct responses of 7 and mean difference, 0.54; 95% CI,0.20–0.88, number of correct responses of 4 for gist and verbatim, respectively).

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE

Results identified several communication strategy combinations that improved parents' understanding of research information. Adoption of these active strategies by investigators, clinicians, institutional review boards, and study sponsors represents a simple, practical, and inexpensive means to optimize the consent message and enhance parental, participant, and patient understanding.

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