Harvard Health Letter

Ask the doctor: What are the risks and benefits of taking part in research studies?

Q. I have a particular disease, and I know that a medical school in my community recruits people to participate in research studies. I'm wondering if I should volunteer for one of these studies. What do I need to know?

A. There are two good reasons to consider volunteering for a study: the study might help others, and it might help you. There also may be risks to you, in some types of studies. As with anything in life, you will need to balance the possible benefits to you and others against the possible risks. To do that, you need to be given a clear idea of what the benefits and risks are.

Every study for which you might volunteer has been carefully designed: there is a detailed written plan specifying every question you might be asked, the kind of physical examinations that might be performed, the tests that might be ordered, and any treatments you might receive. This detailed plan has been thoroughly reviewed by a committee called an Institutional Review Board (IRB). The committee includes doctors, nurses, researchers, and members of the community—none of whom is involved with the study. Their job is to determine whether the study has acceptably low risks for the participants. No study can proceed unless the IRB has approved it.

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