Clinical Trial Myths & Comics
Comic strips have been a part of our culture for decades and continue to be in our daily lives. Why? It could be said that comic strips reflect our society and culture, as evidenced by the re-establishment of characters to better reflect modern sensibilities and the diverse American population. Or maybe, at the end of the day, we are all just looking for a good laugh. Either way, these little drawings with characters and speech balloons stick with us.
Unfortunately, there are some comic strips that we might not want to stick with us. Some comics are derogatory, offensive, or in general, create a mockery of whatever the comic is depicting. Here are several comics that support common, negative, and stereotypical myths about participating in clinical trials.
Myth #1: Clinical trials may include painful or unpleasant parts.
Sometimes, potential study volunteers may imagine participating in a clinical trial is painful. Like all medical interventions, clinical trials have potential benefits and risks, such as side effects or pain, but each clinical trial is unique. Some clinical trials may involve giving a blood sample, just like you would when your own doctor asks that you have some blood work done to ensure you are healthy. Other clinical trials may simply require a standard set of vital signs to be taken, such as blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate—all barely invasive procedures that cause no pain. No matter what procedures occur in a clinical trial, you always have the opportunity to talk to the doctor and discuss expectations and any questions or concerns you might have.
Myth #2: Clinical trials are dangerous because they use experimental practices and medicines.
The very nature of clinical research is research; it is how we find answers to questions that previously did not have an answer. As a result, it is rare to conduct research without some level of risk because we do not know what we do not know. There can be a risk of experiencing a negative (or adverse) event to the medication being researched, depending on the study.
Risk and potential adverse events are part of the clinical research process; it is how we learn and improve. In a clinical trial, an adverse event provides researchers with tons of critical data that allows them to further modify the medication to make it better!
It is also important to know that while there is always risk involved, the risk is assessed by people (including the doctor and study staff) that have only your best interests in mind. For example, all clinical trials are reviewed before they start by an institutional review board (IRB), a committee made up of doctors, scientists, and community members who have the responsibility to protect clinical trial participants. The purpose of IRB review is to ensure both before and during the clinical trial that appropriate steps are taken to protect your rights and safety. During the clinical trial, researchers frequently and rigorously assess and monitor the safety status of the study participant. In addition, the IRB also ensures that the benefits and risks are carefully weighed and that the clinical trial is reviewed for unnecessary harm or discomfort before it starts.
Myth #3: When you are in a clinical trial, you are just a human guinea pig.
You may be hesitant to participate in a clinical trial because you are concerned that you will be treated as a set of symptoms rather than a human being with a medical need. Or, you might worry that you will be given untested medication without fully understanding the clinical trial or providing consent. However, the truth is, strict guidelines are in place to ensure that you and all other clinical trial volunteers are treated fairly and ethically. Before any medication being researched can be given to a study volunteer, scientists must complete a rigorous screening and preclinical testing process, which can take up to six years. Additionally, as previously mentioned, the clinical trial is reviewed by the IRB, ensuring it is ethical and not placing the rights and welfare of patients in harm’s way. Finally, every clinical trial has a thorough informed consent process, which provides you with all the necessary information to ensure you are fully informed of all aspects of the clinical trial as it pertains to you. Even after signing informed consent, you always have the right to end your participation, at any time, for any reason!
Myth #4: If I join a clinical trial, I might get a "sugar pill" or placebo instead of the real medication.
It is true that in clinical trials, there is often a placebo component. A placebo is a product that looks exactly like the medication being researched but does not cause harm or good. They are used within some clinical trials to prevent bias and help doctors understand the effects of the new therapy or medication that is being studied. The decision about whether to use a placebo in a clinical trial is based on how serious the illness is, whether an existing FDA-approved treatment is available, and other considerations that ensure a high standard of ethics. For example, if you decide to participate in a clinical trial and have a serious or life-threatening disease, the best available treatment (called “standard of care”) will be used instead of a placebo.
However, there are clinical trials where study volunteers may get the placebo. Even though the placebo may have no direct impact on you, the data gathered from your participation is critical in supporting the medication being researched. Even by receiving a placebo, you are greatly contributing to the advancement of medicine.
The Library of Congress has a section dedicated to comics; yes, you read that right. Megan Halsband, a librarian who also curates the comic collection at the Library of Congress, states: “People who are reading comics want to see characters and a story that reflects their experience.” If you have participated in a clinical trial, you know that these comics are not accurate. Unfortunately, for those who have never participated in a clinical trial, these images and concepts are the ones that stick with them. By understanding the clinical trial process and encouraging others to learn more about the truths of participating in clinical trials, we can debunk these myths and help advance medicine for all.