Not Always a Placebo! Types of Clinical Trials
Last updated: May 2020
When many people think of clinical trials, they may think of testing a new experimental drug or taking a placebo pill. But, not all clinical trials involve treatment! Even among clinical trials that focus on treatment, many don’t involve medication. Researchers conduct clinical trials to study and improve many aspects of healthcare.
Here are some of the most common types of clinical trials.
Treatment trials may involve a variety of different types of treatment, including medication, a combination of medications, or a new surgery or procedure. While some treatment trials compare a group of people receiving a medication to a group who is receiving a placebo (sometimes known as a sugar pill or an inactive medication), that is not always the case!
Many clinical trials are being conducted to find new treatments for people with serious illnesses. In some situations, it would be unethical to not provide any type of treatment to a trial participant. Often, trials will compare a group of people taking the current best available treatment option, sometimes called the ‘gold standard’, to a new experimental treatment. In other situations, researchers may be conducting a clinical trial to test new dosages for an already approved treatment. People in these trials would not receive a placebo medication and may even receive a medication that is available to the public (often for free!).
These trials look for ways to prevent disease in healthy people or look for ways to prevent a disease from coming back. Some prevention trials focus on non-medical ways to prevent disease. For example, a trial where participants make a certain lifestyle change could be studying prevention efforts. Other prevention trials may use new drugs or therapies to try and prevent disease. For example, a vaccine trial to prevent an infectious disease.
Clinical trials focusing on screening aim to find the best ways to detect health conditions or disease. It’s important to note that screening is different than diagnosis. Screening looks to detect a disease in someone before they have developed any symptoms, while a diagnosis confirms a disease after symptoms have presented.
Screening trials may include different imaging tests, such as MRI or CT scans, or laboratory tests, like blood or urine tests. These trials may also look at genetics to better understand what role inherited genes play in disease development.
Diagnostic trials study or compare different tests or procedures that are used to diagnose a disease or health condition. For some conditions, there is no single test that is able to confirm a diagnosis. Many people will need to have several different tests to rule out other conditions before being diagnosed. Diagnostic clinical trials can hopefully make diagnosis an easier process for future patients.
Quality of life trials
Quality of life trials, sometimes known as supportive care trials, do not focus on curing a disease or treating a health condition. Instead, these trials focus on improving the comfort or quality of life of people with different health conditions. Whether it is a direct symptom of the disease or a treatment side effect, there can be a number of negative impacts on day-to-day life and overall well being. These trials recognize that while new treatment breakthroughs are important, overall quality of life is also extremely important.
Trials that focus on behavior aim to compare or evaluate different ways behavior can impact health. While many behavior trials may also focus on prevention, like those looking at diet or exercise, others may aim to better understand how our brains work to shape behaviors.
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