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What are Clinical Trials?

Clinical trials are a type of health research. We use trials to test new health treatments or processes, known as interventions. An ‘intervention’ is anything that is put in place to try and improve people’s health. For example:

  • Medicines
  • Medical equipment
  • NHS services
  • Counselling
  • Vaccines
  • Surgery
  • Health education
  • Training for NHS staff

It is generally accepted that James Lind did the first clinical trial in 1747. Lind was a Scottish doctor and sailor. Whilst serving as a navy surgeon, he noticed that many sailors were suffering from scurvy, a nasty condition that can lead to bleeding gums and losing teeth. At the time, doctors had many different opinions about how to treat scurvy. Lind designed a simple experiment to see which treatment worked best.

He took 12 sailors with scurvy and split them into pairs. Each pair tried a different treatment, ranging from eating oranges and lemons to drinking seawater and cider! Lind monitored each pair and found that the sailors who ate citrus fruits quickly recovered from the scurvy – and the clinical trial was born!

Today, there are many different types of clinical trials. Modern trials are often bigger and more complex than this early example. However, we still use the same basic principles. Often, trials involve comparing a new treatment (or other health intervention) with existing treatments, to see which works best.

Why are Clinical Trials Important?

High quality health research is needed now, more than ever. The COVID-19 crisis showed the important role that research plays when implementing new treatments or approaches (which we call interventions) into the NHS. Without trials, there is a risk that people are given treatments that don’t work, or which could be harmful and waste valuable NHS resources.

Trials help us to answer vital questions, such as:

  • Is an intervention safe?
  • Does an intervention work?
  • Is a new intervention better than what is used already?
  • Does it have any side effects?
  • How much does it cost?

Ultimately, trials are intended to improve the health and wellbeing of the public.

More Information

Want to know more about clinical trials in general?
Health Talk Online have made some short films about clinical trials. Including the perspective of patients who have taken part in trials.

Our International Clinical Trials Day page also has information about trials, including some short films made by our staff.

Interested in taking part in a trial?
The ‘Be Part of Research’ website lets you search for ongoing trials in particular health conditions or locations, including information about how to support COVID-19 research.

Want to know more about Patient and Public Involvement?
See our involvement pages