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Research Ethics

Good research is very important. Clinical trials test new drugs which might provide new and better treatments. When there are several treatments for a condition, studies may also quantify the benefits, burdens and harms of each treatment. This informs evidence-based medicine which seeks to provide the best treatment to each individual patient. In addition, qualitative research helps us understand more about what people experience with various diseases, and what supports and interventions are most useful to assist people to find their way through the more distressing experiences. Whether we are clinicians who provide care or patients who receive it, good research is vitally important for all of us.

Patients might decide to participate in research because this will give them access to new treatments which would not otherwise be available to them. Another reason for participation is altruism: patients hope that their participation in research will help the progress of medicine and the development of new and better treatments. Good research must treat participants with respect. Above all, the likely benefits of the research must justify any discomfort or risk of harm to the participants.

There is a well-regulated structure which oversees most research in Australia. Two key documents in this are the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research and the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. The first of these documents sets out the ethical standards for research in Australia; the second specifies the principles and practices which should inform the research culture of researchers and research institutions. These key documents were jointly issued by the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Australian Research Council, and Universities Australia.

There are additional standards which guide research involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These include Values and Ethics: Guidelines for Ethical Conduct in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research and Keeping research on track: A guide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about health research ethics.

Before new drugs are given to human beings, there must be laboratory studies and animal studies. Again, there are documents which set standards for the use of animals. These include the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes and Guidelines to promote the wellbeing of animals used for scientific purposes: The assessment and alleviation of pain and distress in research animals.

As well as conforming to the above standards, research in Catholic health institutions also conforms to additional standards set out in Part II, Chapter 6 of the Code of Ethical Standards for Catholic Health and Aged Care Services in Australia. Because the Catholic Church does not approve of abortion, for example, researchers in Catholic institutions will not undertake research on an embryo or fetus which has been procured through deliberate abortion.

Most research in Australia which involves anything more than low risk is assessed and approved by Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs). In 2013, there were 218 HRECs across Australia. 90 of these were associated with health services; 58 with universities; and the remainder with a variety of government departments and other organisations.