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The Rise in Volunteers for Clinical Trials in the UK

Posted on May 28, 2013 by Sergio Ulloa ()  | Tags: clinical trials, cures, drug tests, NHS, research, side effects, volunteers

The National Health Service is celebrating the recent announcement that more and more people across the UK are volunteering to participate in clinical trials. According to the statistics, nearly 650,000 people volunteered to take part in nationwide clinical trials last year - which is three times the number of volunteers just five years ago. This is very good news for the British health industry because these trials allow doctors to monitor the effects of newly developed medicines on the body. The volunteers' contributions also have a far reaching and positive impact by allowing researchers and pharmaceutical companies to assess effective treatments and cures for diseases and investigate future drug development.

The huge number of clinical trial volunteers is especially surprising considering that only seven years ago, clinical trials hit the headlines in England for completely different reasons when six volunteers became critically ill after taking part in private trials for an inflammatory drug. Despite this bad press, drug trial are as popular as ever. Those well documented failings at one of London's private testing units in 2006 have resulted in a thorough review of regulations of clinical trials which are now thought to be safer than ever.

These days there are much stricter assessments when a product is tested on humans for the first time; there is also a three month enforced break for volunteers between separate drug trials. In addition, the news about the surge in volunteer numbers came at the same time as the annual International Clinical Trials Day which saw the launch the UK's ''It's OK to ask" campaign which is aimed at making the general public more confident about the safety levels of clinical trials, and the potential health benefits for volunteers.

This rise in volunteers has been praised by the Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, who is delighted with the numbers and believes in the important role of medical volunteers: making breakthroughs in medicine that can help to improve thousands of lives. Dame Davies has held her position since 2010, and during this time she has made a push for more nationwide research projects. Following 30 years working in clinical practice, teaching and research, she is of the strong opinion that health research is an investment priority. Thanks to her efforts, over the last few years the UK has seen an increased focus on the role of the National Institute for Health Research, which has in turn increased its commitment to conducting research.

As a result, Britain's medical research industry has been going from strength to strength, demonstrated by the opening of several new Clinical Trial Units, which means more options for quality research trials and evaluation studies. These days there is positive collaboration between the NHS, university research laboratories, pharmaceutical firms and the open data agenda meaning that there is a big push for collecting and sharing research projects and results. The strong number of medical volunteers is a vital part of this process.

Volunteers are often NHS patients who agree to take part in trials of medicines which have been designed to treat their own illness or disease. Statistics indicate that over 600,000 people receiving NHS treatment agree to participate in clinical trials. The advantages for the patient is that they receive the best standard treatments which have already passed laboratory testing. In addition, research has indicated that people who volunteer to receive medical care in hospitals with Clinical Trial Units have better health outcomes because they are more intensively monitored and their progress also receives more follow up checks after the trial has finished.

The advantages for the overall performance of the NHS are equally important. Firstly, these Clinical Trial Units may be opened in parts of the country where there are particularly poor health indicators which might be related to issues like heart disease, obesity or diabetes. The research units are therefore able to focus on those specific medical concerns and conduct research to improve the health of the local population by developing new treatments. Secondly, Clinical Trial Units are seen to have a huge role to play in the overall 'health and wealth of the nation' by investigating and developing research into big killers like cancer, thanks to the huge number of cancer patients (15 to 20 percent) who participate in  medical trials.

In addition to healthcare patients, The Medical Health Research Association estimates that about another 8,000 to 9,000 people in the UK voluntarily participate in clinical trials each year.  In 2011, The Guardian newspaper included 'Drug Trials' as one of the top 11 ways to make money that year. In at number 10, the article suggested that volunteers were generally paid between 1,000£ to 2,000£ for their work which typically lasts from one to two weeks. In addition to this payment, volunteers tend to be very well looked after, and some research departments and drug companies offer perks like free food, free accommodation, WIFI and other entertainment.

Students are known to be keen volunteers because of the time they have available to commit to ongoing research projects, and not least because of the financial rewards available for taking part. (One of the six volunteers who became seriously ill during the 2006 clinical trials, a 20 year old man, admitted that he was attracted to clinical trials as a quick way to finance driving lessons). A high amount of young students participating in clinical trials is equally good news for research units because these volunteers are more likely to be strong, healthy and fit candidates with fully functioning organs and high immunity.

Despite the rise in medical volunteers, there is still work to be done when it comes to spreading the message about the importance of clinical research in the UK. According to a survey, only 21 percent of patients and the public said that they would feel confident asking their doctor about research opportunities, so the recent launch of the "OK to ask campaign" hopes to attract more people to participate. The campaign encourages medical professionals to get more knowledgeable on the subject so that they are prepared to answer questions about clinical research, and by wearing an OK to ask badge to encourage queries from the public. The other hope is that existing clinical trial volunteers continue to participate due to increased transparency and clarity from medical professionals and the increased amount of information about what the trials involve. The campaign aims to keep research at the top of the NHS agenda by producing a higher quality and quantity of British medical research studies.

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