Understanding & Participating in Clinical Trials

Published on May 23, 2024

What is a clinical trial?

A clinical trial is medical research which includes volunteers. The research helps evaluate treatments and whether new drugs, diets, or medical devices are safe for humans. There are many different types of clinical trials:

  • Treatment trials test new drugs or combinations, surgeries, or therapies.
  • Prevention trials look for better ways to stop diseases from happening or returning through medicines, vaccines, or lifestyle changes.
  • Diagnostic trials find better tests or procedures for diagnosing a particular disease or condition.
  • Screening trials discover the best ways to detect certain diseases or health conditions.
  • Quality of life or supportive care trials explore ways to improve comfort for individuals with a chronic illness.

Clinical trials go through four phases, each designed to answer a separate research question.

Phase I evaluates a new drug or treatment in a small group of people for the first time to make sure it is safe, decide a safe amount, and identify side effects.
Phase II focuses on usefulness and continues to look at safety.
Phase III involves more people and compares the new treatment to the standard treatment.
Phase IV occurs after the drug or treatment has been marketed and checks long-term effectiveness and impact.

Why participate in clinical trials?

People choose to take part in clinical trials for several reasons. For many, it’s a chance to get new treatments before they are widely available. For others, it may be a way to be more active in their own health. And, of course, people often want to help others, paying it forward to future patients and finding personal satisfaction playing a part in groundbreaking discoveries.

Participating in a clinical trial is a significant decision, particularly if you have specific health concerns or limited mobility. If you’d like to sign up, here’s how to get started:

Consider your options. All clinical trials have specific participant requirements, so you’ll need to find one that fits your health condition and circumstances. Think about the benefits and risks of being involved, including side effects, how long it will take, and the possibility of placebo use (providing a substance that has no therapeutic effect).

Talk to your healthcare provider. Discuss your interest in taking part; your doctor can explain if a clinical trial is right for you and may be able to recommend trials.

Visit ClinicalTrials.gov. This website provides a searchable database of federally and privately supported clinical studies conducted around the world. You can search by location, disease, and keywords.

Participating in clinical trials can be a gateway to cutting-edge medical therapies and a way to contribute to the collective effort of fighting diseases. You can be the hero in your life—and someone else’s.

Source: IlluminAge AgeWise with information from NIH; Alliance for Aging Research; The New York Times; NIA