Responding to signals of mental and behavioral health risk in pragmatic clinical trials: Ethical obligations in a healthcare ecosystem

Joseph Ali, Stephanie R. Morain, P. Pearl O'Rourke, Benjamin Wilfond, Emily C. O'Brien, Christina K. Zigler, Karen L. Staman, Kevin P. Weinfurt, Jeremy Sugarman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Ethical responsibilities for monitoring and responding to signals of behavioral and mental health risk (such as suicidal ideation, opioid use disorder, or depression) in general clinical research have been described; however, pragmatic clinical trials (PCTs) raise new contextual challenges. Methods: We use our experience with the PRISM (Pragmatic and Implementation Studies for the Management of Pain to Reduce Opioid Prescribing) program, which is a component of the Helping End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, to provide examples of research studying nonpharmacologic interventions for pain that collect sensitive data. Members of the PRISM Ethics and Regulatory Core and Patient-Centered Outcome Core Working Group discussed and refined considerations and recommendations. Results: PCT researchers can help identify the extent of their ethical obligations to monitor and respond to signals of potential behavioral and mental health risks by understanding and aligning stakeholder expectations; considering characteristics of the trial and study population; defining triggers, thresholds, and responsibilities for action; identifying appropriate response mechanisms and capabilities; integrating responses with health systems; and addressing privacy. Based on such an assessment, researchers should proactively identify if, when, and how a response will be triggered. Doing so necessitates that stakeholders understand their roles in managing such risks. Finally, consent forms and other study disclosures should clearly state what if any responses might be taken. Conclusion: Early and ongoing bi-directional communication with relevant stakeholders is critical to identifying and meeting the ethical challenges for PCTs when managing and responding to behavioral and mental health data that potentially signal elevated risk to individuals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number106651
JournalContemporary Clinical Trials
StatePublished - Feb 2022


  • Behavioral health
  • Common data elements
  • Ethics
  • Mental health
  • Pain
  • Pragmatic clinical trials

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology (medical)


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