The 'myth' of the clinical trial guinea pig

By Dr Jonathan Sheffield
NIHR Clinical Research Network

Image caption,
Testing drugs is just one part of clinical research

A common perception of clinical trials is that they are risky - and that those who take part are little more than "guinea pigs".

But in this week's Scrubbing Up, Dr Jonathan Sheffield, chief executive of the National Institute for Health Research Clinical Research Network says we need to rethink our ideas about clinical trials.

In a national poll in 2012, 82% of the public thought it was important for the NHS to offer opportunities to take part in clinical research, and fewer than 7% said they would never take part.

But despite this overall positive view from the public, it is seen as being a risky business - using patients as "human guinea pigs" to test new drugs. So is this image justified?

The first thing to remember is that clinical research is part of what the NHS is all about.

Doctors use clinical research studies to compare current treatments with potentially better ones, so that we can keep improving the care we offer NHS patients.

Without the evidence that clinical research provides, medicine would never progress.

'Nothing is 100% risk-free'

But clinical trials aren't just about testing new drugs.

Yes, some involve taking a new medicine, and patients often welcome this because it means they get access to new - sometimes breakthrough - drug treatments before they are generally available.

However, this is only one aspect of the research we do.

A lot of clinical trials involve using existing medicines in new ways, or in new combinations, to see if we can make them more effective.

Other studies simply ask the patient to provide details about their lifestyle, and how it is affected by their condition, but don't involve taking any medicines at all.

The point is, there are many different types of clinical study, covering all aspects of medicine, so the scope of research in the NHS goes way beyond most people's perception.

So how risky is it to take part in a clinical trial?

The honest answer is that no medical intervention - trial or not - is 100% risk free.

But all clinical research studies have to go through very strict ethical and regulatory checks before they get anywhere near a patient, and the UK has one of the best records world-wide for patient safety.

You are also very closely monitored while you are taking part in a study, so the chances of something going wrong are incredibly slight.


That leaves us with the "guinea pig" idea.

Well, this is also rather misleading. It implies that patients don't really understand what they are putting themselves up for, and that they are somewhat at the mercy of researchers.

This really isn't the case.

In the NHS, patients volunteer to take part in clinical research, and they do so for a whole number of reasons.

Sometimes it is because a clinical trial can offer a new treatment option.

Sometimes it is because they just want to help other people like themselves, and make a contribution to improving NHS care.

The key point is that there are strict rules about gaining the consent of patients and carers before they take part in a clinical research study - and these rules are taken very seriously indeed.

Last year, more than half a million NHS patients chose to take part in nearly 3,000 clinical research studies.

Thanks to those patients, we are learning more all the time about how to deal with a whole range of medical conditions - and make some real breakthroughs that will affect thousands of lives.

I hope that more patients will put their preconceptions aside and ask about the reality of taking part in a clinical trial when they next visit their family doctor or hospital consultant.

Our national health service is - rightly - famous across the world for its standards of patient care.

Through clinical research, we can keep making patients, and the NHS, better.

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