When you take a pain reliever, check your blood pressure or get your flu shot, you might not think much about the research behind why we do those actions. However, medical research is key to improving health care.
Medical research helps find new and better treatments for diseases, improves ways of preventing and diagnosing illnesses and helps reduce risk factors for health conditions.
Medical research has led to advances such as:
- Vaccines that have eliminated or nearly eliminated diseases like smallpox, polio and measles.
- Antibiotics that treat bacterial infections and save lives.
- Cancer treatments that help people live longer, better lives.
- Surgeries that are less invasive and have shorter recovery times.
- New treatments for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.
“Medical research helps us learn more about a disease and how to find it early or possibly prevent it. It tests new treatments, such as drugs, diets and medical devices,” said Po-Heng Tsai, MD, a neurologist with Banner Alzheimer’s Institute.
However, some people hesitate to join research studies because of misconceptions. Dr. Tsai helped dispel some common myths about participating in research studies and clinical trials.
Myth 1: Medical research is only for people who are sick
“Observational studies enroll healthy volunteers to follow them over time and identify factors that could increase or decrease a person’s risk of getting a disease,” Dr. Tsai said. “And prevention studies, such as those for vaccines, are tested in healthy people to see if the treatment is effective.”
If you are healthy, there are a lot of reasons you might want to participate in medical research. You might be able to join studies that prevent diseases or improve health and well-being. You could also learn more about your health. For example, you might be able to have genetic testing. And you might be able to work with experts in diseases and conditions that you’re worried about developing.
You can also help improve health for your community, the world and future generations. Research on healthy people can help experts create new medications and treatments. For example, genetic testing can help identify genes linked with certain diseases so researchers can develop targeted drugs.
Myth 2: Medical research is risky
“All medical research studies have potential benefits and risks. Some potential risks include side effects from the treatment, discomfort from study procedures such as blood draws or getting a treatment that doesn’t work,” Dr. Tsai said.
However, there are lots of different ways to participate in research studies, and there are always safety practices in place.
For many studies, you simply fill out surveys, provide a blood sample or have an imaging scan. For more invasive studies, you’ll get information about the risks and benefits. Researchers will explain the study to you and answer any questions you have.
“All participants’ safety and well-being are closely monitored. In fact, Congress has passed laws to protect people who participate in research. Participants only receive investigational treatments after it has undergone extensive lab testing,” said Dr. Tsai.
If you participate in studies, researchers will monitor you closely for any side effects or complications. For studies that are considered high risk, an independent data safety monitoring board may review data regularly and make recommendations.
You can withdraw from any study whenever you like. “Participation in medical research is completely voluntary. You are always in full control of your participation and can withdraw at any time if you decide you no longer wish to participate,” Dr. Tsai said.
Myth 3: Only doctors can join
You can join medical research studies no matter what field or job you work in. People of all ages, backgrounds and health conditions can participate.
Not everyone is eligible to participate in every medical research study. Some studies are looking for people of a certain age, health status or medical history. However, studies limited to certain occupations are rare.
Myth 4: Medical research is time-consuming
Lots of studies only require a small time commitment, such as completing a survey or providing a blood sample. And you can be clear about your availability before you enroll.
For some studies, you might be able to provide data over the phone or online — virtual or remote research studies are options. If you need to schedule in-person appointments, you can usually make them at times that are convenient for you.
“Some studies could be as short as a few weeks while others could last four to five years. For some studies, you only need to be seen once a year, while others could require weekly visits,” Dr. Tsai said.
Myth 5: Medical research is only for certain ethnic groups
People of all races, ethnic backgrounds and genders need to participate in medical research. That way, everyone benefits from research gains.
People of color and other minority groups are affected by many diseases more than people in other groups, but they aren’t represented as much in clinical trials. That means researchers might not understand how new treatments work in people in these groups.
Diversity is very important for medical research. Health outcomes are different for different groups. For example, Black Americans are more likely to die from heart disease and cancer than white Americans. Hispanic Americans are more likely to have diabetes than white Americans. And Native Americans and Alaska Natives are more likely to experience obesity and substance abuse than white Americans.
When people in these minority groups join research studies, it helps experts understand what’s behind these differences. That way, they can design better treatments.
Research that includes people in minority groups has led to these advances:
- A new drug for sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that mainly affects Black Americans.
- The discovery that Black women are at increased risk for blood clots after childbirth, which led to new guidelines for preventing and treating these clots.
- A vaccine for COVID-19 that was tested in a diverse group and found safe and effective for everyone.
Historically, minority groups have faced barriers in medical research studies including medical racism, lack of access to health care and underrepresentation. This is why organizations like the National Institute of Health, the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative and the National Minority Quality Forum are working to correct this problem and promote diversity in research.
Why join a research study?
There are lots of ways you can benefit from joining clinical trials and research studies:
- You might be able to access new treatments before they are widely available.
- You can help improve medical knowledge and health care for everyone.
- You may learn more about your own health.
“Medical research is essential because before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can approve a medicine or other form of treatment, it must be tested to make sure it is safe and it works,” Dr. Tsai said.
If you’re interested in joining medical research studies, check out the All of Us research program, which aims to enroll one million people. Its goal is to speed up health research by conducting health studies with a diverse range of people.
You can also learn about research studies by talking to your doctor, searching for research studies or clinical trials online at ClinicalTrials.gov or ResearchMatch, or contacting your local university or hospital.
The bottom line
Medical research is crucial for fighting diseases, improving health conditions and helping people live long, healthy lives. You may not want to join research studies because you have misconceptions about them. By learning the truth, you may reconsider wanting to participate, which may help improve your own health and the health of others.
If you have questions about participating in clinical trials or research studies, talk to your doctor or connect with an expert at Banner Health.