Q: I have an uncommon medical condition, and my friend suggested I investigate ongoing studies of new drugs. What are the pros and cons of entering a clinical study?
A: Researchers are always recruiting patients for studies of new treatments and preventive strategies for a wide range of diseases. In the simplest terms, these studies compare existing approaches to newer ones in similar groups of people and determine which is more effective. A clinical trial is the way we transfer a therapy that we think will work into something that we know will or won't actually work.
Clinical trials offer several benefits, including the following:
--Access to state-of-the-art care. If you're in a study of a new treatment, you'll receive either the best existing therapy or a promising new approach, even though you won't know which you are receiving. You'll be carefully monitored by medical teams.
--The chance to receive a promising new treatment. Not all new drugs or devices tested become "breakthrough" therapies, but if the one in your study does, you could be among the first beneficiaries.
--Free care. Many trials cover the cost of medical treatment if your insurance doesn't, and some may even compensate you for participating.
--The opportunity to contribute to medical knowledge. Not only will you help researchers determine how effective a treatment or lifestyle practice is, you'll contribute to information about its effectiveness in women, who have been underrepresented in clinical trials.
You may want to think of participating in a medical study as a volunteer activity or part-time job. It does require the following:
--A time commitment. You may need to travel to a medical center for occasional tests or to fill out extensive questionnaires.
--Diligence. You'll provide better information if you adhere carefully to the instructions -- taking medications as directed, answering questionnaires completely, and keeping appointments.
--Accepting risk. There is always a risk of an adverse effect with a new -- or even established -- treatment. Be sure to read the consent form and make sure you understand it before you join a study.
If you are interested in joining a clinical trial, ask your doctor about studies in your area. Also, https://clinicaltrials.gov, a website operated by the National Institutes of Health, lists ongoing studies.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)