Are written informed consent documents for cancer radiotherapy used in US academic medical centers at appropriate readability levels to ensure patient comprehension?
In this nationwide survey study and readability analysis, only 9 (8%) of 113 cancer radiotherapy clinical consent forms met the most permissive national recommendation (eighth grade level) for patient materials. Moreover, consent forms contained an average of 7.2 common difficult words.
High readability grade levels and common use of difficult words in radiotherapy consent forms may make it difficult for patients to give truly informed consent; therefore, reevaluation and modification of radiotherapy consent forms on a national scale is warranted.
Appropriate informed consent processes are crucial to preservation of patient autonomy and shared decision making. Although half of patients with cancer receive radiotherapy, it is unknown whether current consent practices are comprehensible for patients.
To characterize use, specificity, and readability of clinical informed consent forms for radiotherapy, hypothesizing that forms would be higher than the recommended sixth- to eighth-grade readability level.
Design, Setting, and Participants
This nationwide cross-sectional survey study and readability analysis was conducted from 2016 to 2018 and included 89 academic radiation oncology departments that were part of the 2016 Electronic Residency Application Service. Department leaders (clinical directors, chairs, and personal contacts of study authors) at academic radiation oncology departments were contacted via email.
Main Outcomes and Measures
Readability levels were measured by 7 validated readability indices, including the Ford, Caylor, Sticht (FORCAST) index for nonnarrative texts. Difficult words were identified using The Living Word Vocabulary, which describes the readability grade levels of 40 000 common words.
Of 89 departments, 67 (75%) responded to questions and 57 (64%) provided 113 forms for analysis. Departments providing forms did not differ substantially from others in terms of region, residency size, research output, rural vs urban location, or public vs private institution status. All departments obtained patient written informed consent before radiotherapy; 38 (57%) used body site–specific forms. Using the most conservative (low-score) estimate, mean form readability ranged from grade level 10.6 to 14.2. By 7 distinct indices, only 9 (8%) of 113 forms met the recommended eighth-grade readability level, and 4 (4%) forms met a sixth-grade level. Not a single form met either recommendation based on the FORCAST index. Forms used an average of 7.2 difficult words. Body site–specific forms had considerably better readability than general consent forms.
Conclusions and Relevance
This nationwide study of informed consent practices for cancer treatment with radiotherapy demonstrates that while all US academic radiotherapy departments use written consent forms, it is rare for templates to meet the recommended readability levels for patient materials. These data suggest the need for reevaluation and modification of the approach to radiotherapy consent, ideally with guidance and templates designed by national professional organizations.
Perni S, Rooney MK, Horowitz DP, et al. Assessment of Use, Specificity, and Readability of Written Clinical Informed Consent Forms for Patients With Cancer Undergoing Radiotherapy. JAMA Oncol. Published online May 02, 2019. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2019.0260
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