Controversy and the medical industry have long been bedfellows. This was been the case since the days when morphine was an indispensable ingredient in children’s cough mixture and mercury was the panacea that cured everything from a grazed knee to cancer of the colon. A controversial issue that is in and out of the news these days is paid medical research performed on volunteers. Many people believe that it exploits those who struggle to support their families or those who find themselves in strange countries and are struggling to survive economically. Proponents of the practice, however, believe that it is vital to gain necessary insight into the functioning of new drugs. Supporters also claim that the volunteers are well informed of the process before hand and are simply reimbursed for their time and inconvenience. They are not paid for risks taken.
Advertisements for volunteers often make it sound like participating in medical research is the most fun that you can have, barring that dream that you have about flying. They emphasise that the demand is great for paid research and highlight all of the possible things that you can do with the extra money. They draw attention to the fact that most clinics have comfortable features so that you can relax, play pool, watch TV, and catch up on your reading. They make it sound as if it’s like going on a short holiday that ultimately benefits mankind.
Before you can register as a volunteer for medical research, you have to fill in a registration form that requires your personal details as well as details about your current and medical health. They want to know if you currently suffer from afflictions like asthma, seasonal heyfever, hepatitis or liver problems, neurological problems, thyroid problems, irritable bowel syndrome, depression or if you have ever tried to commit suicide. Your body mass index is important, as is your blood pressure. Additional required information includes: whether or not you take regular medication, are a smoker, drink regularly, or use recreational drugs. Volunteers are also asked about dietary habits, and, if they are female, what their child bearing statuses are. Anyone from 18-85 years old can qualify.
The length of each research study depends on the registration outcome and can range from a few hours to 5 months or more. If you don’t have the time for lengthy trials there are studies that take place on outpatient visits. There are also weekend studies, which may suit students or full-time workers.
All trials have to be approved by the Ethics Committee before they can begin and all doctors are bound by the Declaration of Helsinki guidelines for conducting medical research. All drugs are subjected to rigorous tests in pre-clinical trials before they can be given to healthy volunteers. Volunteers are well informed of the drugs that are going to be tested on them, as well as on the possible side effects and risks involved. The side effects are usually minimal, such as drowsiness and headaches. The studies are made as safe and risk free as they can possibly be. Every contingency is planned for.
Volunteers don’t enter the process as lab rats, at the mercy of mad scientists in lab coats. They have rights, one of which is to have the procedure explained to them in full. They sign a consent form to indicate that they understand the procedure and what it is that they are agreeing to do. Volunteers are able to choose the studies that they want to take part in. One of volunteers’ most important rights is to be able to withdraw from any trial at any stage without any justification. This may or may not affect payment depending on the clinic concerned. They also have the right to privacy, and information about their participation in medical research is kept strictly confidential.
There have been cases where medical research has gone horribly wrong. People have been paralysed. Some have even died when all they were supposed to be testing was a harmless aspirin-like drug. However, the cases where the research has benefited the sick and the dying have far outnumbered the casualties of the trials. A few headaches and some drowsiness seems a small price to pay in the search for a drug that could possibly alleviate great suffering, or even cure a terminal illness.