Understanding research

The media is full of results from research studies and how the findings might affect our health and wellbeing. Understanding the different types of research, clinical trials and evidence, and the ways that researchers come to their conclusions, can help in making decisions about our own health. 

Types of medical research

Sometimes the information from trials and research can help you to make decisions about your own health. You may use the finding from research, or you may be asked to take part in trial and research. There are several types of medical research. Some studies focus on:

  • what causes a disease or condition
  • how to prevent or avoid getting sick
  • how to diagnose and screen for various diseases
  • how to improve or develop new treatments.
Types of medical research
Experimental studies

These are usually studies of a treatment or preventive intervention.

The treatment or intervention is applied to one group of people, and their responses are then compared to a 'control' group, which is a group that did not receive the treatment/intervention.

Observational and epidemiological studies

These studies look at the patterns of disease in groups of people. They might follow the same people over a period of time to observe what happens to their health. For example, a study might compare the rates of lung cancer in people who smoke with the rates in people who do not smoke.

Observational and epidemiological studies do not prove the causes of an illness or support specific treatments.

Their usefulness lies in insights about possible behaviour, exposure (eg, to cigarette smoke) or health experiences that might be responsible for a disease or condition and potential treatments. These insights then need other studies.

Intervention studies

These studies aim to learn the best ways in which to treat or prevent disease.

A prevention study may test the effect of a lifestyle change – such as regular exercise and improving diet quality – on general health or a condition. It may also test the effect of a medication or surgical procedure.

Clinical trials

These trials aim to learn the best ways in which to treat or prevent disease. Clinical trials involve a drug, vaccine, device or lifestyle intervention.

The best clinical trials are randomised controlled trials (RCTs). The participants are assigned to a treatment or to a placebo (dummy) treatment; whether a participant is allocated to a treatment or a placebo is determined by chance.

Clinical trials

If you are thinking of volunteering to participate in a clinical trial involving a drug, vaccine or device, you should know which stage/phase of testing the drug or device is in:

Phases Aims of the phase
Phase I
  • Determine the best dosage to be used in further testing
  • Measure how quickly the drug is broken down in the body
Phase II
  • Find out if the treatment has the desired effect in people
  • Confirm the best dosage to be used in further testing
  • Confirm testing for safety
Phase III
  • Measure how well the treatment works
  • Determine what dosage is needed to achieve the best result

Phase IV

begins after the results of phases I-III have been given to the government for approval

  • Test different dosages
  • Determine if the treatment works for other diseases or conditions
  • Test different ways of taking the treatment (eg, tablets, syrups)

Who can participate in medical research?

Nearly every woman can qualify to be part of a medical research study at some time. However, each study will have a specific set of criteria for participants.

Observational studies and phase I clinical trials generally include a wide range of participants. If you are currently healthy, but at some risk of developing a disease (perhaps because of your family history), you may qualify for a prevention study. If you have a health condition, you could consider entering a clinical trial to test a treatment.

Need for women in clinical trials and medical research studies

Women are needed as participants in clinical trials and other medical research studies because of a lack of research data about women's health.

For many years, researchers did not include women in studies. They often assumed if a treatment worked for men, it would work the same way for women. Now we know women and men can respond differently to the same treatment, and some treatments that work for men may not work as well for women and vice versa. In addition, there are many diseases and conditions that affect only women, such as pregnancy, menopause and cancer of the uterus or ovaries, which require research data.

Ethics approval

All studies involving animals or humans must be approved by an intensive ethics approval process. A study must be approved by an ethics committee, which is a panel of scientists, doctors, lawyers, community representatives and religious leaders. Once a study is approved by an ethics committee, it is deemed to be an important study in which harm to participants is minimised and the potential benefits to human health are valuable.

Informed consent

Researchers use a process called informed consent to make sure participants who are volunteering to take part in a study understand and agree to what will happen during and after the research study. Researchers must obtain this informed consent from all participants before starting the study. Before taking part, a participant should receive the below information about the study.

Requirements for 'informed consent':

  • The purpose of the research
  • What the participant will be expected to do, and when
  • What the treatment or intervention is, if any
  • If it's a clinical trial, whether there is a chance that you will receive a placebo ('dummy' treatment)
  • The chances of being harmed as a result of taking part
  • The chances of being helped as a result of taking part
  • What alternative treatments are available, if any
  • Any costs to you or your health insurance company for taking part in the study
  • Who will have access to your medical and personal information
  • Who is responsible for paying for treatment if you are injured as a result of being in the study
  • Who is paying for the study
  • Whether you will be paid or compensated for taking part in the study
  • The length of the study
  • Who to contact if you have any questions
  • A statement that if the participant changes her mind about being involved in the study, she can withdraw at any time.

Risks of participating in medical research

This risks involved in taking part in medical research depend on the type of study; some studies involve little or no risk, while others might be risky. Most studies are somewhere in between. Participants should always be informed of any foreseeable risks, side effects or discomfort prior to participating in medical research projects.

Important areas of risk for women to assess before taking part in a study include:

  • when a woman is pregnant, any drugs she takes may have an effect on her foetus
  • any treatment already being taken with the potential to affect hormones, including the oral contraceptive pill (the pill), menopause hormone therapy (MHT, formerly called hormone replacement therapy, HRT), 'bioidentical' hormones, herbs and dietary supplements, as they can affect how a woman responds to other drugs.

Further resources

Further information is available in the National Health and Medical Research Council statement on ethical conduct in human research

Last updated 06 November 2018 — Last reviewed 11 October 2018

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at October 2018.

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