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[HMS] Participating in Health Research Studies

Countway Library Guide to Participating in Health Research

What is Health Research?

The term "health research," sometimes also called "medical research" or "clinical research," refers to research that is done to learn more about human health. Health research also aims to find better ways to prevent and treat disease. Health research is an important way to help improve the care and treatment of people worldwide.

Have you ever wondered how certain drugs can cure or help treat illness? For instance, you might have wondered how aspirin helps reduce pain. Well, health research begins with questions that have not been answered yet such as:

"Does a certain drug improve health?"

To gain more knowledge about illness and how the human body and mind work, volunteers can help researchers answer questions about health in studies of an illness. Studies might involve testing new drugs, vaccines, surgical procedures, or medical devices in clinical trials. For this reason, health research can involve known and unknown risks. To answer questions correctly, safely, and according to the best methods, researchers have detailed plans for the research and procedures that are part of any study. These procedures are called "protocols."

An example of a research protocol includes the process for determining participation in a study. A person might meet certain conditions, called "inclusion criteria," if they have the required characteristics for a study. A study on menopause may require participants to be female. On the other hand, a person might not be able to enroll in a study if they do not meet these criteria based on "exclusion criteria." A male may not be able to enroll in a study on menopause. These criteria are part of all research protocols. Study requirements are listed in the description of the study.

A Brief History

While a few studies of disease were done using a scientific approach as far back as the 14th Century, the era of modern health research started after World War II with early studies of antibiotics. Since then, health research and clinical trials have been essential for the development of more than 1,000 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs. These drugs help treat infections, manage long term or chronic illness, and prolong the life of patients with cancer and HIV.

Sound research demands a clear consent process. Public knowledge of the potential abuses of medical research arose after the severe misconduct of research in Germany during World War II. This resulted in rules to ensure that volunteers freely agree, or give "consent," to any study they are involved in. To give consent, one should have clear knowledge about the study process explained by study staff. Additional safeguards for volunteers were also written in the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki.

New rules and regulations to protect research volunteers and to eliminate ethical violations have also been put in to place after the Tuskegee trial. In this unfortunate study, African-American patients with syphilis were denied known treatment so that researchers could study the history of the illness. With these added protections, health research has brought new drugs and treatments to patients worldwide. Thus, health research has found cures to many diseases and helped manage many others.

Why is Health Research Important?

The development of new medical treatments and cures would not happen without health research and the active role of research volunteers. Behind every discovery of a new medicine and treatment are thousands of people who were involved in health research. Thanks to the advances in medical care and public health, we now live on average 10 years longer than in the 1960's and 20 years longer than in the 1930's. Without research, many diseases that can now be treated would cripple people or result in early death. New drugs, new ways to treat old and new illnesses, and new ways to prevent diseases in people at risk of developing them, can only result from health research.

Before health research was a part of health care, doctors would choose medical treatments based on their best guesses, and they were often wrong. Now, health research takes the guesswork out. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that all new medicines are fully tested before doctors can prescribe them. Many things that we now take for granted are the result of medical studies that have been done in the past. For instance, blood pressure pills, vaccines to prevent infectious diseases, transplant surgery, and chemotherapy are all the result of research.

Medical research often seems much like standard medical care, but it has a distinct goal. Medical care is the way that your doctors treat your illness or injury. Its only purpose is to make you feel better and you receive direct benefits. On the other hand, medical research studies are done to learn about and to improve current treatments. We all benefit from the new knowledge that is gained in the form of new drugs, vaccines, medical devices (such as pacemakers) and surgeries. However, it is crucial to know that volunteers do not always receive any direct benefits from being in a study. It is not known if the treatment or drug being studied is better, the same, or even worse than what is now used. If this was known, there would be no need for any medical studies.