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Frequently Asked Questions

Choosing to participate in a clinical research study is an important personal decision. The following questions provide detailed information about participating in clinical research studies. In addition, it is often helpful to talk to a physician, family members, or friends about deciding to join a study.

Why participate in a clinical research study? Participants in clinical research studies can play a more active role in their own health care, gain access to new research treatments before they are widely available, and help others by contributing to medical research.

Who can participate in a clinical research study? All clinical research studies 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 research study are called "inclusion criteria" and that exclude 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 research study, a participant must qualify for the study. Some research studies seek participants with illnesses or conditions to be studied in the clinical research study, 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 are the benefits and risks of participating in a clinical research study? Benefits Clinical research studies 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.
  • Obtain expert medical care at leading health care facilities during the trial.
  • Help others by contributing to medical research

Risks There are risks to clinical research studies. There may be unpleasant, serious or even life-threatening side effects to an experimental treatment. The experimental 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.

What are side effects and adverse reactions? Side effects are any undesired actions or effects of the experimental drug or treatment. Negative or adverse effects may include headache, nausea, hair loss, skin irritation, or other physical problems. Experimental treatments must be evaluated for both immediate and long-term side effects.

How is the safety of the participant protected? The ethical and legal codes that govern medical practice also apply to clinical research studies. 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 research study 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 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.

Every clinical research study 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 research study 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.

Does a participant continue to work with a primary health care provider while in a clinical research study? Yes. Most clinical research studies 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 research study after it has begun? Yes. A participant can leave a clinical research study at any time. When withdrawing from the study, the participant should let the research team know about it, and the reasons for leaving the study. Leaving a study will not affect your current or future health care with the institution. 

Who sponsors clinical research studies? Clinical research studies are sponsored or funded by a variety of organizations or individuals such as physicians, medical institutions, foundations, voluntary groups, and pharmaceutical companies, in addition to federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Veteran's Affairs (VA). Trials can take place in a variety of locations, such as hospitals, universities, doctors' offices, or community clinics.

Information is copyright  U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Last Updated: 6/17/14