Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know

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Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know

Most health research studies in the news either simply observe people or don’t involve them at all. Clinical trials are different. These are studies in which people volunteer to test new drugs or devices. Doctors use clinical trials to learn whether a new treatment works and is safe for people. These kinds of studies are needed to develop new treatments for serious diseases such as cancer.

Deciding to take part in a clinical trial can be hard, but it’s your choice to make. A lot has changed over the past few decades, and many people want to know as much as possible about all of their treatment options before they make up their minds. A clinical trial may be an option for you, if there’s a trial for which you qualify.

There’s always uncertainty when you’re thinking about a clinical trial. Part of it is that the doctors in charge of a clinical trial don’t know ahead of time how things will turn out. If they did, there would be no need for the study in the first place. So there’s no simple answer to the question, “Should I take part in a clinical trial?”

Most people don’t pay much attention to clinical trials until they have a serious illness like cancer. Medical breakthroughs (the results of clinical trials or other kinds of research) often make the news, but you usually don’t hear about clinical trials themselves unless something has gone wrong in one of them. For instance, the media quickly reports it any time a volunteer in a study is harmed. Although it’s very rare, people have been harmed or even died while taking part in clinical trials. Reports of these tragic outcomes are important, because they help to expose problems in the system. These problems can then be handled so that they don’t happen again. And because of bad things that happened in the past, there are now laws, requirements, and procedures in place to protect the rights and the health of human volunteers.

What you usually don’t hear about in the news are the thousands of people who are helped each year because they decided to take part in a clinical trial. You also aren’t likely to hear about the millions who benefit from others’ participation in clinical trials.

There’s no right or wrong choice when it comes time to decide on taking part in a clinical trial. The decision is a very personal one and depends on many factors, including the benefits and risks of the study and what you hope to achieve by taking part. It also depends on your own values, preferences, and priorities.

Knowing all you can about clinical trials in general – as well as the ones you are thinking about taking part in – can help you feel better about your decision. If you do decide to take part, knowing what to look for and what to expect ahead of time can be helpful, too.

This guide will address many basic questions and concerns so that you will be better prepared to discuss clinical trials with your doctor and your family. It should help you decide which questions you need to ask and what the answers may mean for you. But in the end, only you can decide if taking part in a clinical trial is right for you.

One last note: this guide focuses on clinical trials for people who are being treated for cancer. But most of the information here applies to other types of clinical trials, too.

Last Medical Review: 09/21/2012
Last Revised: 09/21/2012