A Human Guinea Pig? Debunking Clinical Trial Myths

Kylie P., Journalist

Everyone knows that safe, effective medication is the backbone of modern healthcare. But have you ever wondered how medications get from a research laboratory to FDA approval?


Clinical trials ensure the safety of drugs, medical devices, procedures, and other diagnostic or preventative methods, collectively known as interventions. Although trials are conducted for every FDA approved treatment, many people don’t know much about them; in fact, there are lots of myths about clinical trials that are widely believed, but completely false.


First of all, what are clinical trials? They’re generally defined as research studies that are conducted with human participants to determine the safety and effectiveness of medical intervention. These trials also serve to provide credible data that can be applied to other areas of study.


The phrase ‘research studies’ combined with ‘human participants’ may sound scary, but fear not! This brings us to our first myth:

Participants are simply human guinea pigs.

This is a very common misconception, but it’s understandable: the thought of brand-new interventions being tested on people for the first time is frightening. When researching these studies, however, you’ll quickly find that they’re highly regulated and much safer than they might seem. Trials are long processes that begin with confirming the intervention’s safety with a small group of participants and end with conclusive results proving its success; new interventions never go directly from the lab to being carelessly tested on thousands of people.


Another misconception regarding clinical trials is the use of placebos. Placebos (‘treatments’ given to a participant that actually have no physiological benefit) can be utilized in clinical trials, but aren’t applicable to the majority of them. This debunks myth number two:

Trials always use placebos – some people won’t get the treatment they need.

This couldn’t be more incorrect! Firstly, many clinical trials wouldn’t benefit from their usage, and therefore don’t include them. More importantly, a participant will never receive placebos if they have a progressive or life-threatening illness, or have the option of receiving other treatments with a high success rate.


This final myth likely stems from the media’s portrayal of clinical studies. From morning news to medical dramas, trials are often represented as risky and reserved for severely ill patients who don’t respond to other treatments. Once again – not true at all! Myth number three:

Clinical trials are a last resort for patients who won’t get better.

This misconception is not only cynical but completely ignores the fact that not all clinical trials test new and experimental treatments. In fact, plenty of trials don’t study the treatment of diseases at all, and instead, look for healthy participants to test preventative medicine or simply make observations and collect data from. Also, clinical trials that test medications or procedures are open to anyone; some patients choose to join a trial before receiving any other treatments.


Though they may not be well understood, clinical trials are an extremely important part of the advancement of modern medicine. Next time you get a shot, take some ibuprofen, or watch a cool procedure on Grey’s Anatomy, think about all of the testing that went into the creation of that intervention, and thank the researchers and participants who made it possible!


“NIH Clinical Research Trials and You: The Basis.” National Institutes of Health, U.S.

Department of Health and Human Services, 20 Oct. 2017, https://www.nih.gov/health-information/nih-clinical-research-trials-you/basics.


Eldridge, Lynne. “What Is the Purpose of Clinical Trials?” Verywell Health, Dotdash, 29 Aug. 2018, https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-the-purpose-of-clinical-trials-2249350.


“Learn About Clinical Studies.” ClinicalTrials.gov, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2019, https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/about-studies/learn#ClinicalTrials.