Plain Language Protocol Synopsis 101

What is a Plain Language Protocol Synopsis (PLPS)?

A clinical study protocol (CSP) is a comprehensive document that outlines important aspects of a clinical trial including the goals of a trial, the trial design, and more. A protocol synopsis is a summary of the CSP, but it still contains highly complex scientific terms, acronyms, and processes not readily understandable to a non-expert. A protocol synopsis written in plain language that can be understood by a wider, non-expert audience can be a beneficial resource for ethics committees, site staff, and potential trial participants. 

Additionally, Annex 1, D.24 of the European Union’s Clinical Trials Regulation (EU CTR) 536/2014 outlines that for future clinical trial applications, “The protocol shall be accompanied by a synopsis of the protocol.” The specific content to be included in the protocol synopsis is further outlined in Question 5.8 of the EU CTR Questions & Answers document. Some of this information is included below as a reference (taken from version 6.4, dated February 2023).

5.8 Question: What should be included in the protocol synopsis described in Annex I, D.24 ? 238.

Answer: Sponsors should include the information below in the protocol synopsis (maximum two pages) to be submitted with the clinical trial application according to Annex I D24 … Sponsors should consider making the synopsis understandable to a layperson. 

Further specified are the nine requirements from the clinical study protocol (CSP) that must be included in this two-page protocol synopsis. These nine requirements are:

  1. Trial title
  2. Rationale
  3. Objectives
  4. Primary Endpoints
  5. Secondary Endpoints
  6. Population
  7. Trial design
  8. Interventions
  9. Risks and Benefits

CISCRP’s Health Communications team was thrilled to learn about this new type of deliverable because we specialize in, and are passionate about, creating easy-to-understand plain language documents. With the implementation of the EU CTR in January 2022, sponsors have increasingly shown interest in developing plain language protocol synopses with CISCRP to be included as part of their clinical trial applications.

When conceptualizing our version of the plain language protocol synopsis, a primary goal became to make a graphically designed template that would include all the nine required elements from the regulation, be written in plain language, and remain under the two-page limit. After we had the template, we were able to put it to work for several trials.

What We’ve Learned from Writing Plain Language Protocol Synopses

Some challenges become immediately apparent when writing a plain language protocol synopsis under the guidelines set out by EU CTR. The first challenge is the two-page limit. Especially since plain language often requires more room to explain complex terms, and health literacy best practices require ample white space.

Additionally, from a more technical standpoint, tables have proven to be an essential asset for presenting the objectives, endpoints, and trial design. A table helps improve the readability in specific scenarios such as aligning a singular objective with multiple endpoints. For trial design, having a table that outlines the different treatment arms, medications, doses, administrations, and duration serves as a great alternative to piling all that information into a paragraph.

We have also compiled a robust glossary of plain language terms from our years of experience writing and user-testing plain language summaries. When writing a PLPS, we can utilize terms from this glossary to increase efficiency when drafting and increase consistency among all plain language documents for a specific sponsor. This consistency helps patients who may read a PLPS, informed consent form, and/or a trial results summary over the course of a given trial. It also helps sponsors by speeding up the process and the amount of work needed to create these documents.

The second and more elusive challenge is that, as a new deliverable, the target audience has not yet been clearly defined. In the meantime, we are trying to give it the broadest appeal possible. We take special care to explain as much as possible for a layperson audience while still making a document that can be utilized efficiently in an industry or medical setting.  

Another tip that we recommend is utilizing graphics and color coding as much as possible. Applying colors to different treatment groups in a table can clear up what specific treatments, doses, or activities apply to that group, without adding any words. Also, using icons can increase readability and provide a visual break in an otherwise text-heavy document.

One final consideration is an optional third page glossary to define any number of the complex terms that were included in the two-page PLPS. This would not necessarily be for submission purposes but could be used by the clinical trial staff to facilitate conversations with potential patients. The PLPS has the potential to be a multi-purpose document and provide value beyond the clinical trial application process.

Should Sponsors Add a Plain Language Protocol Synopsis to Future Clinical Trial Applications?

Based on the regulation, it seems that some form of a protocol synopsis is required. As far as the plain language part, it seems some sponsors are waiting to see what others are doing and how this rule is enforced, while others are making plain language protocol synopses a priority.

Here at CISCRP, we think the more plain language, the better. We believe engaging a wider audience in the clinical research process is an important and worthwhile endeavor. So, when the time comes to start writing your protocol synopses, why not take the next step and make them as accessible as possible to all audiences?

Written by: Zack Fey


EU CTR 536/2014 Q&A p. 54-55

EU CTR 536/2014 p. 58

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