What to know about clinical trials

Think of all the once-worrisome ailments that are now afterthoughts thanks to clinical trials.



Polio? Virtually nonexistent in the United States. Chickenpox? A right of passage for older generations but unknown to today’s kids thanks to an effective vaccine. Even scurvy, once the scourge of sailors everywhere, was eradicated following what is considered the world’s first clinical trial, conducted by Dr. James Lind in 1747.

The list goes beyond vaccines, as scientists have discovered countless medicines, therapies, devices and procedures thanks to clinical trials and the millions of generous people who have volunteered to participate in them.

But while many of us appreciate the importance of this research – and some may even be familiar with the work of Dr. Jonas Salk or even Dr. Lind – clinical trials are still widely stigmatized as inherently risky or, at the very least, misunderstood.

International Clinical Trials Day (May 20) is the perfect opportunity to take the mystery out of clinical trials.

What are clinical trials?

Clinical trials are human research studies designed to evaluate a medical, surgical or behavioral intervention. Some trials test whether a new drug or device is safe and effective. Others study whether a new treatment is better than the existing standard of care, whether a new diagnostic technique can detect disease earlier or whether a preventive measure can stop a health problem from developing.

Why do people participate in trials?

People participate in clinical trials for a variety of reasons. Healthy volunteers want to assist in scientific discovery and offer hope to people who are suffering. Those who are ill may gain access to a broader range of treatment options available only in select clinical trial programs across the country. Once enrolled, participants may gain comfort from receiving one-on-one support and answers from clinical research coordinators.

Why are participation rates lower than researchers would like?

Fewer than 1 in 20 cancer patients participate in clinical trials even though clinical trials are crucial to advancing cancer treatment. Research shows that financial barriers, logistical concerns and restrictive eligibility criteria can lead to low rates of trial participation. People may have misinformation about trials — or may simply not know that the option exists at all. Moreover, these same barriers make those with lower incomes and individuals who identify as racial or ethnic minorities less likely to participate. However, if more patients had known about and participated in clinical trials over the decades, advancements in disease treatment that are now standard may have been discovered sooner.

How are patients protected during clinical trials?

Clinical trials would not be possible without the thousands of volunteers who participate each year. Our participants’ safety, comfort and wellness are our highest priority, and we are deeply committed to maintaining the highest professional and ethical research standards.

We take specific steps to protect the safety, health and welfare of our research participants while carefully communicating with them every step of the way. These efforts include a thorough internal review and approval process for every research project.

It’s important to note that all treatments examined in clinical trials go through years of rigorous evaluation before researchers begin testing on people. Trials are free for patients. Hospitals that participate in clinical trials receive funding from the government and pharmaceutical and device companies to cover the cost of the treatment or procedures. Patients can choose to participate in a study or leave a trial at any time.

Celebrating progress

We thank and celebrate all our clinical trial participants, clinical research team for their invaluable support of our research mission and other health care organizations who participate in research for their contribution to science and discovery. Happy International Clinical Trials Day.

Learn more about clinical trials at Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care by visiting aah.org/research.

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