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Ethical issues in research involving minority populations: the process and outcomes of protocol review by the Ethics Committee of the Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University, Thailand

Pornpimon Adams1, Waranya Wongwit2, Krisana Pengsaa3, Srisin Khusmith4, Wijitr Fungladda2, Warissara Chaiyaphan1, Chanthima Limphattharacharoen1, Sukanya Prakobtham1 and Jaranit Kaewkungwal5*

Author Affiliations

1 Office of Research Services, Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand

2 Department of Social and Environmental Medicine, Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand

3 Department of Tropical Pediatrics, Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand

4 Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand

5 Department of Tropical Hygiene, Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand

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BMC Medical Ethics 2013, 14:33  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-14-33

Published: 11 September 2013



Recruiting minorities into research studies requires special attention, particularly when studies involve “extra-vulnerable” participants with multiple vulnerabilities, e.g., pregnant women, the fetuses/neonates of ethnic minorities, children in refugee camps, or cross-border migrants. This study retrospectively analyzed submissions to the Ethics Committee of the Faculty of Tropical Medicine (FTM-EC) in Thailand. Issues related to the process and outcomes of proposal review, and the main issues for which clarification/revision were requested on studies, are discussed extensively.


The study data were extracted from proposals and amendments submitted to the FTM-EC during the period October 2009 – September 2012, and then analyzed qualitatively and quantitatively. The main issues for clarification/revision were analyzed by thematic content analysis.


373 proposals were submitted; 44 studies involved minority groups with 21 extra-vulnerable minorities. All clinical and 2/3 of non-clinical studies submitted for initial review underwent full-board review. For combined clinical and non-clinical study submissions, 92.1% were referred back to the investigators and approved after clarification/revision, while 2.7% were deferred due to major/critical changes, and 2.1% not approved due to substantial violations of ethical principles. The main issues needing clarification/revision differed between all studies and those involving minorities: participant information sheet (62.2% vs. 86.4%), informed consent/assent form (51.2% vs. 86.4%), and research methodology (80.7% vs. 84.1%), respectively. The main ethical issues arising during the meetings, regarding studies involving minorities, included ensuring no exploitation, coercion, or pressure on the minority to participate; methodology not affecting their legal status; considering ethnicity and cultural structure; and providing appropriate compensation.


Delays in the approval or non-approval of studies involving minorities were mainly due to major or minor deviations from acceptable ethical standards and/or unclear research methodology. The FTM-EC has employed several mechanisms in its operations, including transparency in the review process, building good relationships via open communication with investigators, requesting investigators to consider closely the necessity to enroll minority groups and the risk-benefits for individuals and their communities, and the inclusion of minority-community engagement when developing the proposal. Other effective activities include annual study-site inspections, and offering refresher courses to raise awareness of minority and vulnerability issues among researchers.

Ethical considerations; Minority groups; Vulnerable populations; Research proposal