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Ethics in Epidemiological Research

Many public health research studies aim to know the truth about a health issue (Vinik & Jenkins, 1988; Coughlin, 2006). Albeit this goal is straightforward, conflicts of interest often emerge and prevent them from achieving their goals (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Human Research Protections, 1993). The case study has a potential benefit of minimising future incidences of type-2 diabetes because the disease has reached epidemic levels in the US. Therefore, finding out whether high-fibre supplements could decrease the risk of developing type-2 diabetes could benefit populations that suffer a high risk of developing the disease because they would find a prevention drug (Vinik & Jenkins, 1988). Therefore, the research findings are important to mass human populations. Since high-fibre supplements could cause serious health side-effects, such as poor nutrient absorption, anaemia, and osteoporosis (among other chronic diseases), the study design, which intends to administer the high-fibre supplements to healthy people, could put its subjects at risk of developing the above-mentioned diseases (Vinik & Jenkins, 1988). This is the main risk associated with the study design.

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Deontological and utilitarian theories are commonly cited by public health researchers as the main theoretical bases for public health research (Coughlin, 2006). Deontological theories stipulate that public health researchers should not treat people as “a means to an end,” regardless of the outcomes of their research (Coughlin, 2006; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Human Research Protections, 1993). This group of public health theories protects people and communities from exploitation (or harm) that would emerge from participating in public health research (Barratt & Kirwan, 2009). This paper uses this premise to argue against exposing healthy research participants to unknown health risks through the diabetes research. Therefore, it is equally unethical to expose research participants to unknown side-effects of continuous high-fibre supplementation. Overlooking this ethical principle would be contravening a basic rule of research ethics – Do no Harm (Coughlin, 2006). Therefore, exposing research participants to potential unknown side-effects of high-fibre supplements would be unethical in this regard.

This paper has already demonstrated that there are potential benefits and risks of high-fibre supplementation for people who suffer a high risk of developing type-2 diabetes. It has also shown that the potential health risks of high-fibre supplementation are unknown. In this regard, it is ethical to deny the possible prevention benefits of high-fibre supplements to persons in the placebo group. This step would prevent them from developing the potential chronic diseases associated with high-fibre supplementation. An alternative scenario would be exposing them to the possible prevention benefits of the high-fibre supplements after allowing them to sign an informed consent form (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Human Research Protections, 1993). Stated differently, the placebo group needs to know the unknown possible health risks of high-fibre supplementation. If they wish to continue with the study, they should sign an informed consent document that stipulates their wish to take part in the study, after understanding the potential health risks they could suffer (Laureate Education, 2015). This process is part of the principle of informed consent (in research ethics), which requires researchers to disclose the risks, benefits and expectations of a study. Therefore, failing to tell the participants about the risks of participating in the study would be unethical (Laureate Education, 2015).

References

Barratt, H., & Kirwan, M. (2009). The ethics and etiquette of epidemiological research. Web.

Coughlin, S. (2006). Ethical issues in epidemiologic research and public health practice. Emerging Themes in Epidemiology, 3(16), 1-10.

Laureate Education (Producer). (2015). Ethics in epidemiologic research [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Human Research Protections. (1993).Office for protection from research risks: Tips on informed consent. Web.

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Vinik, A., & Jenkins, D. (1988). Dietary Fiber in Management of Diabetes. Diabetes Care, 11(2), 160-173.

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