Translations of informed consent documents for clinical trials in South Africa: are they readable?

Master Thesis


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1. Introduction: Obtaining Informed consent is an ethical prerequisite for enrollment in clinical research. There is a perception that Informed consent documents used in biomedical research are lengthy, overly complex and above the reading capability of typical research participants. In South Africa, ethical committees regulating research on human participants (HRECs) are mandated by the Department of Health’s National Health Research Ethics Council’s (NHREC) guidelines to ensure that researchers have made special considerations for vulnerable groups when conducting research. This includes considerations made for populations with low literacy. For example, the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of the University of Cape Town’s Human Research Ethics Committee (UCTHREC), requires that the language used in Informed consent documents should be directed at a reading level of grade 6 to 8 and that common, everyday words should be used rather than complex language syntax. The HREC expects researchers to translate the approved English version documents into local languages such as isiXhosa and Afrikaans. Since ethics committee focus approval on the English language consent documents and only acknowledge translated versions, a potential gap in this process is whether the translated versions meet the same required readability levels. This study aims to investigate whether translated versions of English language informed consent documents used at a single busy clinical research site are readable and meet the readability levels specified by UCTHREC. 2. Methodology: A quantitative descriptive statistical design was used to explore readability levels of informed consent documents used at a single clinical research facility based in a semi-rural community. Informed consent documents approved by UCTHREC over the past thirteen years (2004 to 2017) that met the inclusion criteria were analysed for readability. The LIX readability test tool was used to calculate readability scores and the levels of reading difficulty. These scores were then matched to a grade level conversion chart to determine the equivalent number of education years required to be able to easily understand the information. Readability levels were determined for isiXhosa and Afrikaans translations of the documents and compared to the levels of the English document. 3. Results: The results indicate that informed consent documents used at this single clinical research facility, independent of language type, are difficult to read. A total of 259 sub-sections of informed consent documents from 10 different studies were analysed. The analysis showed that informed consent documents were classified as “very difficult to read” according to the LIX readability tool in a large proportion of English, isiXhosa and Afrikaans languages: 41 (16%), 255 (98%), and 85 (33%) of informed consent sections respectively. Of all the subsections of English, isiXhosa and Afrikaans documents respectively, 98 (38%), 0 (0%) and 126 (49%) were classified as “difficult to read”, while 79 (31%), 3 (1%) and 38 (15%) were found to have an “average” readability level. Twenty eight (11%), 1 (0%) and 10 (4%) were found to be “easy to read” and 13 (5%), 0 (0%) and 0 (0%) had a “very easy” readability level. The mean LIX readability scores across English, isiXhosa, and Afrikaans languages were respectively 42.27 (95% CI 41.20 – 43.34) corresponding to a readability level of “average”, 74.64 (95% CI 73.79-75.49), corresponding to “very difficult to read” and 46.73 (95% CI 45.66-47.8) “difficult to read”. These findings suggest a high level of difficulty in reading of the text in the Informed consent documents. 4. Conclusion: Translations of Informed consent documents used at a single busy clinical research site are difficult to read and are written at high school to tertiary reading level. These reading levels are above the recommended level prescribed by the site’s research ethics committee (UCTHREC). Local ethics committees should employ more stringent guidelines and checks to ensure readability of translated informed consent documents. Researchers and Sponsors should include readability outcomes in the design and with submissions of new protocols.