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BackgroundLiterature on issues relating to comprehension during the process of obtaining informed consent (IC) has largely focused on the challenges potential participants can face in understanding the IC documents, and the strategies used to enhance comprehension of those documents. In this review, we set out to describe the factors that have an impact on comprehension and the strategies used to enhance the IC process in sub-Saharan African countries.MethodsFrom November 2021 to January 2022, we conducted a literature search using a PRISMA tool. We searched electronic databases (PubMed, EMBASE, EBSCOHOST) to identify relevant peer reviewed studies. We then reviewed the references of these articles to find additional literature that might have been missed through the initial search. We were particularly interested in full text articles in English that focused on the IC process in SSA published between 2006 and 2020. We included systematic reviews, and studies from Western and Asian countries that included data about SSA. We excluded articles that focused on medical interventions and studies that did not require IC.ResultsOut of the 50 studies included most were multi-country (n = 13) followed by single country studies in South Africa (n = 12); Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda (n = 5) each; Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria (n = 2)each ; and one each for Botswana, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique. We identified three areas of focus: (1) socio-cultural factors affecting IC; (2) gaps in the ethical and legal frameworks guiding the IC process; and (3) strategies used to improve participants' understanding of IC.ConclusionOur review showed wide recognition that the process of achieving IC in SSA is inherently challenging, and there are limitations in the strategies aimed at improving comprehension in IC. We suggest that there is a need for greater flexibility and negotiation with communities to ensure that the approach to IC is suited to the diverse socio-cultural contexts. We propose moving beyond the literal translations and technical language to understanding IC comprehension from the participants' perspectives and the researchers' views, while examining contextual factors that impact the IC process.

Original publication




Journal article


BMC medical ethics

Publication Date





Africa Health Research Institute, KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.