The trial protocol is the most important document for clinical trials and describes not only the design and methodology of a study, but also all practical aspects. The suitability of the protocol has a direct impact on the execution and results of the trial. However, suitability is rarely addressed in trial practice and research. The aim of our study was to investigate protocol suitability and to identify suitability-enhancing measures for trials in sub-Saharan Africa.
We used an exploratory mixed methods design. First, we interviewed 36 trial staff at different organisational levels in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Senegal. Second, we conducted an online survey among trial staff in sub-Saharan Africa to investigate trial protocol suitability based on the main themes distilled from the interviews.
Protocol suitability surfaced as a prominent topic in interviews with trial staff, critiqued for its lack of clarity, implementability and adaptation to trial participants as well as to the workforce and infrastructure available. Both qualitative and quantitative investigations identified local site staff involvement in protocol development as the most helpful mean of increasing protocol suitability. Careful assessment of the local context, capacity and cultures, and ensuring that staff understand the protocol were also cited as helpful measures.
Our data suggests that protocol suitability can be increased by discussing and reviewing the protocol with trial staff in advance. Involving operationally experienced staff would be most useful. For multicentre trials, we suggest that at least one trial staff member from each of the sites with the highest expected recruitment rates be involved in developing the protocol. Carefully assessing the context prior to study start is indispensable to ensuring protocol suitability and should particularly focus on the workforce and infrastructure available, as well as the needs and availability of trial participants. To allow for protocol suitability enhancing measures, planners must allocate enough time for trial preparation and solicit feedback and information on context at an early stage. Such prospective planning would increase implementability, efficiency and quality of trials in the long run.