FAQs: Participating in a Clinical Trial

Before choosing to participate in a clinical trial, it’s often helpful to talk to a doctor, family members, or friends. Here are some questions you may have about joining a clinical trial.

Q: How do I find a clinical trial?

A: Your healthcare provider is a good source for information about clinical trials that may be appropriate for you. A general source for information on clinical trials is the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) ClinicalTrials.gov website, which is a registry of federally and privately supported clinical trials conducted in the U.S. and around the world. The website provides information about a trial's purpose, who may participate, locations, and contact information for more details. This information should be used in conjunction with advice from healthcare professionals. After identifying some trial options, the next step is to contact the study research staff and ask questions about specific trials.

Q: Why should I participate in a clinical trial?

A: Aside from helping others by contributing to medical research, participants in clinical trials gain access to new research treatments before they’re widely available and play a more active role in their own healthcare.

Q: Can I participate in a clinical trial?

A: All clinical trials have guidelines about who can and can’t participate that are based on the objectives of the trial. Participation criteria may be based on such factors as age, gender, the type and stage of a disease, previous treatment history, and other medical conditions.

Q: What’s an "expanded access" protocol?

A: For patients who may benefit from the drug or device use but don't qualify for the trials, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations enable manufacturers to provide "expanded access" to an investigational product to people with a life-threatening or severe disease for which there’s no effective alternative treatment. Typically, access is expanded only if the studies are near completion, if there’s some evidence that the drug or device may be effective for the patient, and if the risks of the therapy are outweighed by the benefits that may be gained by the patient. Some investigational drugs are available from pharmaceutical manufacturers through expanded access programs listed at ClinicalTrials.gov.

Q: What's it like participating in a clinical trial?

A: While the process depends on the kind of trial being conducted, many common elements exist. The participant works with a research team that includes doctors, nurses, social workers, and other healthcare professionals. This team checks the participant's health at the beginning of the trial, gives specific instructions for participating, monitors the participant carefully during the trial, and stays in touch after the trial is completed. Some clinical trials involve more tests and doctor visits than the participant would usually have for an illness or condition. Clinical trial participation is most successful when the protocol is carefully followed and there’s frequent contact with the research staff.

Q: What does it mean to give my "informed consent"?

A: Informed consent is the process whereby doctors and nurses involved in the trial explain the details of the study to the potential participants. This process includes an informed consent document that explains the risks and potential benefits of the trial and details such as its purpose, duration, required procedures, and key contacts. It's important to note that the consent agreement doesn’t prevent the participant from withdrawing from the trial.

Q: What are the benefits and risks of my participation?

A: Well-designed and well-executed clinical trials can provide benefits to eligible participants that include playing an active role in their own healthcare, gaining access to new research treatments before they are widely available, obtaining expert medical care at leading healthcare facilities during the trial, and helping others by contributing to medical research.

Risks posed by clinical trials may include unpleasant, serious, or even life-threatening side effects. Because the drug or device is still being studied, its safety and effectiveness aren’t yet fully known. In addition, the treatment may not work. Finally, it may take more time and effort than alternative treatment, such as repeated trips to the study site, more treatments and/or follow-ups, hospital stays, or complex dosage requirements.

Clinical trial participants are often compensated for their participation. The amount of compensation varies and is usually determined by the trial's time commitment and any physical discomfort that may result from the study.

Q: As a participant, is my safety protected?

A: The same ethical and legal codes that govern medical practice apply to clinical trials. Every clinical trial 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 a clinical trial 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.

In addition, most clinical research is federally regulated with built-in safeguards to protect the participants. Trials follow a carefully controlled protocol—a study plan that details what researchers will do in the study. As a clinical trial progresses, researchers report the results at scientific meetings, to medical journals, and various government agencies. Individual participants' names are confidential.

Q: Do I continue to see my doctor while in a trial?

A: Yes. Most clinical trials provide short-term treatments for a designated illness or condition but don’t provide extended or complete primary healthcare. In addition, by having your doctor work with the research team, the participant can ensure that other medications or treatments won’t conflict with the protocol.

Q: Can I leave the trial after it's begun?

A: Yes. A participant can leave a clinical trial at any time. When withdrawing from the trial, the participant should let the research team know about it and the reasons for leaving the study.

Q: What should I know before agreeing to participate in a trial?

A: Learn as much as possible about the clinical trial and make sure you feel comfortable asking the members of the healthcare team questions about it, the care you can expect while in a trial, and the cost of participating in the trial. The following questions might be helpful for the participant to discuss with the healthcare team. Some of the answers to these questions are found in the informed consent document.

  1. What’s the purpose of the study?
  2. Who’s going to be in the study?
  3. Why do researchers believe the experimental treatment being tested may be effective?
  4. Has it been tested before?
  5. What kinds of tests and experimental treatments are involved?
  6. How do the possible risks, side effects, and benefits in the study compare with my current treatment?
  7. How might this trial affect my daily life?
  8. How long will the trial last?
  9. Will hospitalization be required?
  10. Who will pay for the experimental treatment?
  11. Will I be reimbursed for other expenses?
  12. What type of long-term follow-up care is part of this study?
  13. How will I know that the experimental treatment is working? Will the results of the trials be provided to me?
  14. Who will be in charge of my care?
  15. What kind of preparation should a potential participant make for the meeting with the research coordinator or doctor?
  16. What potential conflicts might the researcher or doctor running the study have?
  17. Is the doctor or researcher receiving direct compensation from the institution or company funding the study?

Additional considerations

Here are some other tips to help make your decision about joining a clinical trial:

  • 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.
  • Record the discussion to replay later.