Becoming a Study Volunteer – FAQs
What is a clinical trial?
A clinical trial (also called clinical research) is a research study in human volunteers to answer specific health questions. Carefully conducted clinical trials are the fastest and safest way to find treatments that work in people and ways to improve health. Interventional trials determine whether experimental treatments or new ways of using known therapies are safe and effective under controlled environments. Observational trials address health issues in large groups of people or populations in natural settings.
What are the phases of clinical trials?
Clinical trials are conducted in phases. The trials at each phase have a different purpose and help scientists answer different questions:
- In Phase I trials, researchers test a new drug or treatment in a small group of people (20-80) for the first time to evaluate its safety, determine a safe dosage range, and identify side effects.
- In Phase II trials, the study drug or treatment is given to a larger group of people (100-300) to see if it is effective and to further evaluate its safety.
- In Phase III trials, the study drug or treatment is given to large groups of people (1,000-3,000) to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it to commonly used treatments, and collect information that will allow the drug or treatment to be used safely.
- In Phase IV trials, post marketing studies delineate additional information including the drug’s risks, benefits, and optimal use.
What happens during a clinical trial?
What happens during a clinical trial? The clinical trial process depends on the kind of trial being conducted (See What are the different types of clinical trials?) The clinical trial team includes doctors and nurses as well as social workers and other health care professionals. They check the health of the participant at the beginning of the trial, give specific instructions for participating in the trial, monitor the participant carefully during the trial, and stay in touch after the trial is completed.
Who can participate in a clinical trial?
All clinical trials have guidelines about who can participate. Using inclusion/exclusion criteria is an important principle of medical research that helps to produce reliable results. The factors that allow someone to participate in a clinical trial are called “inclusion criteria” and those that disallow someone from participating are called “exclusion criteria”. These criteria are based on such factors as age, gender, the type and stage of a disease, previous treatment history, and other medical conditions. Before joining a clinical trial, a participant must qualify for the study. Some research studies seek participants with illnesses or conditions to be studied in the clinical trial, while others need healthy participants. It is important to note that inclusion and exclusion criteria are not used to reject people personally. Instead, the criteria are used to identify appropriate participants and keep them safe. The criteria help ensure that researchers will be able to answer the questions they plan to study.
What should people consider before participating in a trial?
People should know as much as possible about the clinical trial and feel comfortable asking the members of the health care team questions about it, the care expected while in a trial, and the cost of the trial. The following questions might be helpful for the participant to discuss with the health care team. Some of the answers to these questions are found in the informed consent document.
- What is the purpose of the study?
- Who is going to be in the study?
- Why do researchers believe the new treatment being tested may be effective? Has it been tested before?
- What kinds of tests and treatments are involved?
- How do the possible risks, side effects, and benefits in the study compare with my current treatment?
- How might this trial affect my daily life?
- How long will the trial last?
- Will hospitalization be required?
- Who will pay for the treatment?
- Will I be reimbursed for other expenses?
- What type of long-term follow up care is part of this study?
- How will I know that the treatment is working? Will results of the trials be provided to me?
- Who will be in charge of my care?
What are the benefits and risks of participating in a clinical trial?
Clinical trials that are well-designed and well-executed are the best approach for eligible participants to:
- Play an active role in their own health care.
- Gain access to new research treatments before they are widely available.
- Help others by contributing to medical research.
There are also risks to clinical trials:
- There may be unpleasant, serious or even life-threatening side effects to treatment.
- The treatment may not be effective for the participant.
- The protocol may require more of their time and attention than would a non-protocol treatment, including trips to the study site, more treatments, hospital stays or complex dosage requirements.
Every clinical trial in the U.S. must be approved and monitored by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) to make sure the risks are as low as possible and are worth any potential benefits. An IRB is an independent committee of physicians, statisticians, community advocates, and others that ensures that a clinical trial is ethical and the rights of study participants are protected. All institutions that conduct or support biomedical research involving people must, by federal regulation, have an IRB that initially approves and periodically reviews the research.
What are side effects and adverse reactions?
Any research study involves some risk because some of the side effects of the experimental drug or therapy under investigation are unknown. While side effects can be negative or positive, an adverse reaction is a negative side effect directly related to the drug. Examples include headache, nausea, skin irritation or other physical problems that may be caused by drug interaction, dosage levels, or an individual’s sensitivity to the experimental drug.
How is the safety of the participant protected?
The ethical and legal codes that govern medical practice also apply to clinical trials. In addition, most clinical research is federally regulated with built in safeguards to protect the participants. The trial follows a carefully controlled protocol, a study plan which details what researchers will do in the study. As a clinical trial progresses, researchers report the results of the trial at scientific meetings, to medical journals, and to various government agencies. Individual participants’ names will remain secret and will not be mentioned in these reports.
What is a placebo?
A placebo is an inactive pill, liquid, or powder that has no treatment value. In clinical trials, experimental treatments are often compared with placebos to assess the treatment’s effectiveness. In some studies, the participants in the control group will receive a placebo instead of an active drug or treatment.
What is Informed Consent?
What is informed consent? Informed consent is the process of learning the key facts about a clinical trial before deciding whether or not to participate. It is also a continuing process throughout the study to provide information for participants. To help someone decide whether or not to participate, the doctors and nurses involved in the trial explain the details of the study. If the participant’s native language is not English, translation assistance can be provided. Then the research team provides an informed consent document that includes details about the study, such as its purpose, duration, required procedures, and key contacts. Risks and potential benefits are explained in the informed consent document. The participant then decides whether or not to sign the document. Informed consent is not a contract, and the participant may withdraw from the trial at any time.
What is a control or control group?
A control is the standard by which experimental observations are evaluated. In many clinical trials, one group of patients will be given an experimental drug or treatment, while the control group is given either a standard treatment for the illness or a placebo.
What kind of preparation should a potential participant make for the meeting with the research coordinator or doctor?
Plan ahead and write down possible questions to ask.
- Ask a friend or relative to come along for support and to hear the responses to the questions.
- Bring a tape recorder to record the discussion to replay later.
Does a participant continue to work with a primary health care provider while in a trial?
Yes. Most clinical trials provide short-term treatments related to a designated illness or condition, but do not provide extended or complete primary health care. In addition, by having the health care provider work with the research team, the participant can ensure that other medications or treatments will not conflict with the protocol.
Can a participant leave a clinical trial after it has begun?
Yes. A participant can leave a clinical trial, at any time. When withdrawing from the trial, the participant should let the research team know about it, and the reasons for leaving the study.