Vulnerable participants in health research: methodological and ethical challenges

Helle Merete Nordentoft, Nanna Kappel

    Publikation: Bidrag til tidsskriftTidsskriftsartikelForskningpeer review


    Ethical guidelines for conducting research are embedded in the Helsinki Declaration of 1964. We contend that these abstract and intentionally universal guidelines need to be appropriated for social and healthcare research, in which purpose and methods often deviate from medical research. The guidelines appear to be instrumental and over-simplistic representations of the often ‘messy’ realities surrounding the research process that is often guided by relational and local negotiations of ethical solutions. Vulnerable participants, for instance, challenge both professional and research ethics, leaving both professionals and researchers in ethical and moral dilemmas. In this article, we specifically focus on the methodological challenges of obtaining informed consent from drug users and terminally ill cancer patients in our PhD research. The question is how to illuminate the needs and problems of vulnerable patients and – at the same time – respect their integrity without exposing them unnecessarily. The article illuminates the interactional construction of roles and relationships and how they affect the contextual construction of vulnerability. In this respect, we demonstrate that both patients and researchers are at risk of being vulnerable. In conclusion, we outline and advocate for a more empirically informed ethics in research with potentially vulnerable participants.

    TidsskriftJournal of Social Work Practice
    Udgave nummer3
    Sider (fra-til)365-376
    Antal sider11
    StatusUdgivet - 6 sep. 2011


    • ethics
    • health research
    • informed consent
    • vulnerable participants