How to guide

This article is available on the BAPRAS website.

Clinical trials: a guide for plastic surgery trainees

Matthew D. Gardiner, Abhilash Jain


Clinical trials are the standard for evaluating new drugs, devices and medical interventions. They form the basis of evidence-based medicine but remain uncommon within the surgical specialties. This is in part due to the nature of surgical interventions but also due to a lack of experience amongst surgeons.

This page uses an example to illustrate the steps involved in planning, executing and analysing a clinical trial. Our example clinical trial will compare dressing A with dressing B for the treatment of a leg ulcer.


The research question
All clinical trials start with a good idea. The question needs to be clinically relevant and possible to answer. This should be backed by a literature review and discussion with relevant experts to ensure that it is worth pursuing.

In this example, we will compare our standard dressing A with another product, dressing B. Dressing B apparently contains new technology that improves wound healing. Our initial hypothesis is that dressing B will heal leg ulcers faster than dressing A.

Protocol development
First, we find out more about the dressings. The manufacturer’s websites should provide data sheets and a literature review will help us write a brief project proposal and determine whether the project is worth pursuing. Discussion with consultant colleagues and local experts can help in this process. It is worth checking the website to see if a similar trial is already underway.

Consider the following questions:

  • What is published on the healing properties of both dressings?
  • What are their biological properties?
  • Why might dressing B offer an advantage over dressing A?
  • Are they safe?
  • Has a similar clinical trial been performed? If so, was the design adequate?
  • What should we use as our primary end points?

At this point, summarise your ideas in a brief project proposal (side of A4):

  • Title
  • Introduction: Background to the project and review of key literature.
  • Hypothesis: Primary aim of project
  • Methodology: Single v multicentred; randomisation; intervention protocol; patient recruitment (inclusion / exclusion criteria); power calculation; statistical methodology, “blinding” of groups for analysis.
  • Outcome measures: Endpoints for the data collection i.e. healed wound
  • References

Initiate contact with your local NHS or University Research and Development (R&D) department. They will provide additional help and guidance. It is also worth contacting your local Clinical Trials Unit (CTU) as they will be able to offer useful information. The Royal College of Surgeons has recently funded five CTUs to promote surgical research. At the time of writing these are in Oxford, Bristol, Liverpool/Manchester, Birmingham and London (St Barts and the Royal London). The Royal College has also appointed a Surgical Speciality Lead for Plastic Surgery who can also offer support.

Study design
We have started to develop a study design in the form of a project proposal. This needs to be fleshed out and will culminate in a formal document that is completed online using the Integrated Research Application System (IRAS). The study will need to be registered (see below).

IRAS ( has an e-learning module to guide you through the process of creating your trial protocol and submitting it to the relevant authorities. It is useful for funding and ethics approval if patients have been involved in the design of the study.


Funding sources should be considered early in the planning stage. Sources in the UK include the Medical Research Council (MRC), National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and charities, e.g. Wellcome Trust and your local hospital. You could also approach the dressing manufacturer at the early stage but it is important that they have no influence in the data analysis as this could be seen as a conflict of interest.

Before obtaining funding for a full-scale trial it may be better to run a feasibility pilot study, which will help test your hypothesis and make a large grant application more robust. It is often easier to obtain funding for these smaller single centre studies. The aim of any clinical trial is to obtain NIHR funding/adoption, which will help immensely with infrastructure, support and funding. Factors that will help you get your study adopted by the NIHR include a testable hypothesis, statistical validity, adequate protocol review, the ability to deliver the study on time, sufficient patients, investigator interest and that your study does not conflict with trials already on the portfolio.


Trials are lead by the Chief Investigator, usually a healthcare professional. In this study, it would be the lead consultant plastic surgeon supervising the project. If the study is to be undertaken as part of an MSc or PhD IRAS recommend that the student should be on the ethics paper work. A sponsor is required for every trial. This is usually an organisation, in our case an NHS trust, but it is frequently a university. The sponsor takes responsibility for managing the trial and providing indemnity.

Submission for approvals

Various approvals are required before starting a trial. These are gained through submission of the IRAS form to the relevant organisations such as the local research ethics committee, R&D department and Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). In this instance, both dressing A and dressing B are on the market, have CE approval and are being used for their intended purpose. Therefore the MHRA does not need to be notified. Check out the MHRA website for more information about trialling new medical devices or medicines.

All clinical trials require submission of a Clinical Trial Authorisation application to a competent authority. European trials, including the UK, are given an EudraCT reference number. In the USA, manages trial registration. In addition, the World Health Organization maintains an International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) to collate information from the Primary Registries around the world meeting the requirements of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE).


It is a requirement for anyone involved in the conduct of a clinical trial to have completed the Good Clinical Practice course. This can be done as a taught course or as e-learning, register through the NIHR CRN.

Subject recruitment starts once the trial is approved and registered. During the trial update your collaborators with progress reports and try and maintain enthusiasm for patient recruitment. If the trial has been adopted by the NIHR portfolio (most patient trials will be), one is required to provide month recruitment accrual information using an online portal.  This is important as studies that are ‘under-recruited’ or who are not reporting recruitment will prevent the hospital/local CRN from getting reimbursement (which could pay for a research nurse etc.)

Patient safety is paramount at all times and so once underway there are statutory requirements for monitoring of the trial and reporting of adverse events. Trial amendments need to be resubmitted to the relevant authorities. Once completed an End of Trial Declaration is submitted and the trial database locked.

Analysis and reporting

Data analysis should follow the trial protocol and be supervised by a qualified statistician. There are usually reporting targets following the end of the trial. Publication of trial data should follow the CONSORT guidelines; most journal editors have adopted these.

The trial data will need to be archived, usually the local R&D department can help you with finding a suitable repository.