Correction appended: The website address that links volunteers with clinical studies is umengage.org
Students looking to earn a little money may find that clinical researchers are willing to pay them for anything from blood tests to hospital overnight visits – provided they successfully weed through the dozens of advertisements plastering every available light post or bulletin board. The University has always been known for its innovative and cutting-edge research programs – the Medical School alone is home to 3,000 ongoing studies – but many projects are unable to realize their potential because of difficulties they face in finding participants. To compensate for these problems, the University recently created a new website that links volunteers with available clinical studies at the University. The new site, umengage.org, is a promising start, but the University must take additional steps to link students and community members with clinical studies.
There are already a number of websites available to help bring medical researchers and participants together, but the University’s site has several advantages. The new site centralizes information about all types of clinical studies, from research on sleep deprivation to cancer treatments. Furthermore, because the University Health System backs the site, it can be trusted to provide reliable and up-to-date information.
But even with the new site, researchers will still struggle to find qualified volunteers. The website will only serve volunteers who actively seek it out, and many potential participants understand neither the benefits of clinical research nor the strict regulations the University’s Institutional Review Board uses to protect participants’ safety. Many subjects are also unaware that beyond providing valuable data to researchers, clinical studies can also directly benefit subjects by them providing free medications and treatment for medical conditions.
Privacy laws prevent researchers from obtaining medical information that would facilitate the process of finding participants. These laws are important to protecting a patient’s medical history, but as a result, it often takes studies months or even years to find enough volunteers to complete their research. The website will only be a start toward easing these obstacles. Many clinical studies rely on word-of-mouth advertising, and therefore draw from a fairly homogenous sample. Flyers posted in bathrooms or even the centralized website will still not reach the very select audience some studies require. The University Hospital and University Health Services could offer incoming patients the option of being contacted if there is a study in which they could participate. This voluntary waiver of privacy rights would significantly broaden the pool of volunteers and would allow researchers to actively seek out qualified participants who otherwise might not be aware of these studies.
Information must be widely available to both would-be participants and researchers because volunteers must often meet specific criteria that can vary widely between clinical studies. The website is an important step toward building a centralized and public database for clinical studies, but more must be done to broaden the pool of volunteers. The University itself contains thousands of potential participants, provided they are linked with a study that meets their individual attributes. In order for the University to take advantage of its full potential as a research institution, a lack of willing participant cannot hamper medical research.