Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Article Comments

The Benefits Of Participating In Clinical Trials

For several years I’ve been preaching in the pages of the Harvard Heart Letter about the importance of taking part in clinical trials. Why? Because I believe they improve medical care, telling us what works and what doesn’t. Figuring it was time to put up or shut up, I volunteered for a clinical trial. I’m glad I did—I learned a lot, received excellent care, and saw first-hand the effort it takes.

The trial was called Targeting Inflammation Using Salsalate in Type 2 Diabetes, or TINSAL-T2D for short. It was being conducted at 16 centers, including the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, a short walk from my office. Its aim was to see if an old drug called salsalate (a cousin of aspirin) could arrest low-grade inflammation that may—emphasis on may—make muscles resistant to the effects of insulin and eventually tip the body into type 2 diabetes.

I responded to an ad for TINSAL-T2D and, after undergoing a few preliminary tests, was accepted to take part in it. I was given a bottle of blue pills and asked to take several of them every day. No one—not lead investigator Dr. Allison Goldfine, not study nurse Kathleen Foster, and certainly not me—knew if the pills were the real thing or a placebo. I was also asked to check my blood sugar every morning, and to show up monthly for blood tests and questions galore.

I just finished my year-long stint, still not knowing whether I was taking salsalate or a placebo. I really don’t care, though I’m keen to know if salsalate worked as hoped, something I’ll learn when the results are published.

Why bother?


For people with cancer or other potentially deadly conditions, joining a clinical trial might give them access to new drugs or procedures that may work better than existing ones. For the rest of us, taking part in a clinical trial may have more subtle benefits:

  • the possibility of better medical care and monitoring than you currently receive
  • learning more about your condition and how to manage it
  • feeling good that you are improving care for others by helping answer important medical or scientific questions

There are downsides, too. You don’t get to choose whether you get the “new thing” or the placebo, which can be difficult for folks who don’t like uncertainty.  The new drug or procedure may have unwanted or unexpected side effects. And volunteering for a clinical trials takes time—over the course of a year I spent about 20 hours at the Joslin, and twice wore a portable blood pressure monitor for 24 hours.

Still, I’d do it again. And I hope you will think about taking part in a clinical trial. I had such a good experience with the TINSAL staff that I’d like to plug a second trial they are running, called TINSAL-CVD, that’s looking for volunteers. (You can check it out on Facebook.) It is testing whether salsalate lowers the risk of heart disease which, like diabetes, may be an inflammation-related condition. To see the wealth of clinical trials that are currently looking for volunteers, explore ClinicalTrials.gov, the National Institutes of Health’s up-to-date listing of the 18,000 clinical trials now underway in the U.S.

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*


You may also like these posts

Read comments »


Comments are closed.

Return to article »

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »