Background: Since the Helsinki Declaration was introduced in 1964 as a code of practice for clinical research, it has generally been agreed that research governance is also needed in the field of public health and health promotion research. Recently, a range of factors led to the development of more stringent bureaucratic procedures, governing the conduct of low-risk population-based health research in the United Kingdom.
Methods: Our paper highlights a case study of the application process to medical research ethics committees in the United Kingdom for a study of the promotion of physical activity by health care providers. The case study presented here is an illustration of the challenges in conducting low-risk population-based health research.
Results: Our mixed-methods approach involved a questionnaire survey of and semi-structured interviews with health professionals (who were all healthy volunteers). Since our study does not involve the participation of either patients or the general population, one would expect the application to the relevant research ethics committees to be a formality. This proved not to be the case!
Conclusion: Research ethics committees could be counter-productive, rather than protecting the vulnerable in the research process, they can stifle low-risk population-based health research. Research ethics in health services research is first and foremost the responsibility of the researcher(s), and we need to learn to trust health service researchers again. The burden of current research governance regulation to address the perceived ethical problems is neither appropriate nor adequate. Senior researchers/academics need to educate and train students and junior researchers in the area of research ethics, whilst at the same time reducing pressures on them that lead to unethical research, such as commercial funding, inappropriate government interference and the pressure to publish.
We propose that non-invasive low-risk population-based health studies such as face-to-face interviews with health and social care professionals or postal questionnaire studies with patients on non-sensitive topics are given a waiver or a light touch review. We suggest that this can be achieved through a two-staged ethics application process. The first stage starts with a one or two-page outline application which ethics committees can use as the basis to grant a waiver or request a full application.