Understanding Clinical Research

Clinical research helps doctors and other healthcare providers learn new ways to prevent and treat illness in people and find answers to questions about health, disease, and human behavior. Clinical research leads to the development of new drugs, new ways to treat old and new illnesses, and new ways to prevent diseases in people at risk of developing them.

Types of Clinical Research

There are many different types of clinical research. 

  • Epidemiology studies improve the understanding of a disease by studying patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease in specific groups of people.
  • Behavioral studies improve the understanding of human behavior and how it relates to health and disease.
  • Health services studies examine how people access health care providers and health care services, how much care costs, and what happens to patients as a result of the care they receive.
  • Community-based participatory research engages the local community in all phases of the research process.
  • Genetic studies examine the potential role of genes in different diseases.
  • Observational studies observe a group of people for many years, usually without any specific intervention. These studies can help scientists understand the natural history of a disease or the transition from wellness to illness.
  • Physiological studies attempt to shed more light on how the human body functions.
  • Public health research tries to improve the health and well-being of people from a population-level perspective. It may combine one or more types of clinical research.
  • Clinical trials study the effects of an intervention or treatment on health outcomes. 

What Is a Clinical Trial?

Scientists and doctors use clinical trials to discover new ways to safely and effectively prevent, detect, and treat diseases. During a clinical trial, researchers may study:

  • New drugs or new combinations of drugs
  • New surgical procedures
  • New medical devices
  • New ways to use existing treatments
  • How to change behaviors to improve health
  • New methods to detect diseases and health conditions
  • New ways to improve quality of life for people with serious health conditions

A Clinical Trial Is a Scientific Test

When conducting a clinical trial, doctors want to answer one or more of the following questions:

  • Does this treatment work?
  • Does it work better than what we’re using now?
  • What side effects does it cause?
  • Do the benefits of the treatment outweigh the risks?
  • Which patients or groups of patients are most likely to find this treatment helpful?

Because a clinical trial is a scientific test, the answer to the research question is unknown. While it is possible you may not receive a direct benefit from your participation in the clinical trial, your involvement will add valuable information to the study findings.

The Difference Between Clinical Research, Clinical Trials, and Medical Care

You may find the distinction between clinical research and your medical care a bit unclear, especially if your doctor or other health care provider is also a researcher. When you receive medical care, you and your provider develop a personalized treatment plan. When you take part in a type of clinical research, you and the researcher must follow a specific plan called the “protocol.” Typically, your provider or the researcher cannot change the protocol. However, the protocol will outline steps to follow if you aren’t doing well.

Contact the Duke Recruitment Innovation Center
This page was medically reviewed on 04/13/2023 by