Frequently Asked Question: How Do I Explain Clinical Trials?


If you’re like us, you’re constantly reading up on the latest public health and medical research — and thinking about how it connects to the public health recommendations that we share with our audiences. But your readers, dear readers, may not understand those connections — which leads us to this week’s topic. You asked, we answer: How do I talk about clinical trials in plain language?

It’s a great question! And we’ve got some thoughts. For starters, 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 scientists develop medical treatments, so don’t assume anything.

Instead, describe 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. Researchers use clinical trials to test medicines, vaccines, medical devices, and other types of treatments. 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 older one. For example, researchers might do a clinical trial to find out if a new medicine prevents acid reflux — or if a new cancer treatment works better than an existing one.”

Now, if your only 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”) could work just fine. For example: “In a recent study, scientists found that the new medicine helped more people feel better than the treatment that most doctors are using now.”

The bottom line: If you’re explaining what a clinical trial is, be sure to use plain language with examples to be crystal clear.

Tweet about it: It’s more important than ever to communicate clearly and transparently about #ClinicalTrials. This week, @CommunicateHlth is revisiting how to explain clinical trials in #PlainLanguage: #HealthLiteracy #HealthComm


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