Frequently Asked Question: How do I explain “clinical trials”?


If you’re anything like us, you’re constantly reading up on the latest research in public health and medicine, and you understand the connections between health messages and the research behind them. But your readers, dear readers, may not — which leads us to this week’s topic. You asked, we answer: How do I talk about clinical trials in plain language?

Here are a few things to consider.

If you need to explain what a clinical trial is (like for a potential study participant), always start with the basics — and we mean the most basic basics. Many people have very little context for how medical treatments get developed, so don’t assume anything.

Start by describing what a clinical trial is in plain language (of course) and then clarify your definition with an example. Remember, plain language isn’t always about using fewer words — sometimes you may need a few more to get the job done.

You could say:

A clinical trial is a kind of research study that tests how well a medical treatment works in people. Clinical trials might test a new kind of treatment to see if it works and if it’s safe, or they might compare a new treatment with an old one. For example, researchers could do a clinical trial to find out if a new medicine helps people lose weight — or they could do one to see if a new cancer treatment works better than a cancer treatment that’s already in use.

If your goal is to explain the takeaway of a clinical trial as opposed to the trial itself, you may not need to use the term at all. Something more general (like “study”) may work just fine. For example:

In a recent study, scientists found that the new medicine helped more people lose weight than the weight loss medicine doctors have been giving their patients.

The bottom line: When it comes to explaining “clinical trials,” it’s all about your end goal. If you’re focusing on process, use plain language and give examples. If you’re talking about results, leave the term out.


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