As most readers of this blog well know, health disparities of various kinds are rampant in the U.S. — in obesity, infant mortality and morbidity, cardiovascular health, and many other areas. In most cases, however, we seem to know more about the extent of health disparities than we do about what causes and what is most likely to ameliorate them.
To rectify this situation, we need to conduct research — and lots of it. Typically, however, health disparities research will have to occur with the same populations who are most likely to be considered vulnerable and in need of extra protections from research. Often, moreover, health disparities research will need to occur in the clinical setting (as opposed to the lab), where patients normally rightly expect that everything done there is designed to serve their individual best interests, rather than to produce generalizable knowledge. Health disparities research might involve research methodologies that are relatively unfamiliar to IRBs, such as community-based participatory research (CBPR), which blurs the traditional distinction between investigator and subject on which the regulations are built. To the extent that disparities are thought to derive from provider discrimination or bias, researchers may face difficulties from a research review system that is designed to protect all “subjects,” including professionals who are incompetent or worse. Eventually, health disparities research scales up to multiple research sites, which usually requires approval from multiple, often conflicting, IRBs. Many interventions to address health disparities, finally, will take the form of public policy rather than clinical treatment. If we want such policies to be evidence-based (and we should), they will have to be tested, perhaps in ways that raise legal or ethical issues (say, randomizing a state’s Medicaid recipients to receive or not receive particular benefits, or randomizing the businesses in a jurisdiction to be required to display nutrition information on the food they sell — or not).
I’m delighted to have received so many comments, both on- and offline, on my last IRB post from those with experience in the research trenches. As I begin a new project along these lines, I would be very interested in hearing again from both researchers and research reviewers with experience in health disparities research, whether you have struggled with these or similar issues (or have abandoned research plans at least partly out of fear of such problems), or have experienced smooth sailing. Feel free to leave comments here, anonymously if you wish, or contact me directly at mmeyer at law dot harvard dot edu. Many thanks in advance.