When Is It Ethical for Physician-Investigators to Seek Consent From Their Own Patients?


Classic statements of research ethics advise against permitting physician-investigators to obtain consent for research participation from patients with whom they have preexisting treatment relationships. Reluctance about “dual-role” consent reflects the view that distinct normative commitments govern physician–patient and investigator–participant relationships, and that blurring the research–care boundary could lead to ethical transgressions. However, several features of contemporary research demand reconsideration of the ethics of dual-role consent. Here, we examine three arguments advanced against dual-role consent: that it creates role conflict for the physician-investigator; that it can compromise the voluntariness of the patient-participant’s consent; and that it promotes therapeutic misconceptions. Although these concerns have merit in some circumstances, they are not dispositive in all cases. Rather, their force—and the ethical acceptability of dual-role consent—varies with features of the particular study. As research participation more closely approximates usual care, it becomes increasingly acceptable, or even preferable, for physicians to seek consent for research from their own patients. It is time for a more nuanced approach to dual-role consent.