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Clinical Trials and Older Adults: Risks, Benefits and More

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November 3, 2017

“I wouldn’t wish COPD on anyone,” George Hansen, age 77, said to his doctor. As George puffed oxygen through the cannula attached to his portable oxygen tank, he reflected on his diagnosis of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) by adding, “If there was some way to find a cure for this, I’d be all in.”

George’s doctor spent the rest of the visit telling his patient about a new clinical trial for a COPD treatment. When George expressed interest in learning more, his doctor referred him to a website to locate the trial and others like it.

As a senior care professional you may encounter clients like George who express a desire to participate in clinical research or would be good candidates for trials. Seniors are historically underrepresented in clinical research studies, so some healthcare professionals believe that encouraging appropriate candidates to participate in clinical trials could help produce more well-rounded study results.

What is Clinical Research?

Many people think of new drug investigations when they hear the words “clinical trials,” but this type of research covers many other aspects of health and wellness. Medical researchers are constantly investigating ways to detect, prevent and treat conditions that affect seniors, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, depression, macular degeneration—and pretty much anything else you can think of.

Medical research includes information-gathering through surveys, as well as scientific experimentation—and healthy volunteers are needed in addition to those with a medical condition. Cohort studies like the Framingham Heart Study gather data on large populations over an extended period of time, while double-blind randomized controlled trials (RCTs) directly evaluate the effectiveness of a medication, surgical technique or device on a patient.

If clients or their family members express interest in participating in medical research, you can share these resources to help them learn more about the process of clinical trials:

It’s worth noting that while most of the resources offered in this article originate in the United States, they may be of value to any resident of North America because medical research protocols are highly standardized internationally.

Benefits and Risks of Participating in Medical Research Studies

Participating in medical research confers varying levels of risk for the individuals involved. For example, a new drug being tested for safety in a Phase I clinical trial could cause life-threatening allergic reactions for some of the people who take it during a study. This type of direct risk to a person’s health must be disclosed to each participant through a process called informed consent.

But clients might be subjected to other types of risks, too. For instance, a terminally ill client who desperately wants access to an experimental drug to potentially extend his or her life may risk disappointment by landing in the study group that receives a placebo treatment instead.

Of course, taking part in medical research also can confer great benefits. Clients might experience relief from symptoms due to an investigative therapy received during a trial, for example.

You can consider providing the following to clients in order to help them educate themselves about the risks and benefits of participating in medical research:

Clinical Trial Databases

Two large online databases can connect senior clients to clinical trials around the globe. The National Institutes of Health clinical trials website includes international studies, making it an excellent resource for Canadians, too. And the Antidote website has the ability to match an individual to a study with a high degree of specificity.

  • ClinicalTrials.gov – National Institutes of Health
  • Antidote.me – easily searchable database of more than 55,000 open research studies in 169 countries

Senior Participation in Clinical Trials

Medical researchers want and need more diversity in their study populations. Older adults comprise an underrepresented population in nearly every type of medical study. The more diverse a research study is, the more likely it may be to improve the quality of research findings for all age groups.

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