Talking to your patients about clinical trials

Healthcare providers – including general practitioners, specialists, other health professionals and nurses – play an important role in raising awareness about clinical trials. Discover good practice principles on how to talk to your patients about clinical trials.

Why talk to your patients about clinical trials

Clinical trials are an essential part of developing new interventions and tests that may alleviate symptoms of your patients’ disease or condition.

Studies show that many patients:

  • are either unaware or unsure that they can participate in a clinical trial
  • are willing to participate in trials if they know it is possible.

You are central to your patients’ decision making

Your patients look to you for trusted medical advice and guidance. You play an important role in raising awareness about clinical trials.

By discussing possible treatment options, you can make a patient aware of a clinical trial and provide them with information about participating.

Studies show that:

  • patients who participate in a trial learned about it from their healthcare professional
  • patients who participated in a clinical trial said that their healthcare professional took the time to explain the trial clearly
  • patients who participated in a clinical trial were more likely to have
    • first learned about clinical trials through a doctor
    • had a doctor explain the pros and cons of participation
    • found an appropriate trial with the help of their healthcare professional.

Helping your patients make informed decisions about involvement in research improves their understanding of the benefits and risks of participating in a clinical trial.

Your patient may benefit from a clinical trial

Being part of a clinical trial helps patients play an active role in their health care and learn more about treating and managing their condition. They can work with doctors and researchers who are experts in their disease or condition.

There is also evidence that patients taking part in clinical trials do better than others with the same disease or condition.

How to talk to your patients about clinical trials

One of your roles as a healthcare professional is to provide accurate and balanced information to your patients, focusing on:

  • raising awareness of clinical trials
  • discussing the potential risks and benefits of taking part in a clinical trial
  • answering any questions they may ask.

General principles for talking to your patients

Good communication between patients and healthcare professionals has many benefits

Good communication:

  • helps to build trusting relationships between patients and healthcare professionals
  • leads to greater satisfaction for both of these groups
  • helps people to take more responsibility for their own health
  • reduces medical errors and mishaps.

Patients vary in how much they want to participate in decision making

Some patients prefer to make their own decisions about their health care; others prefer to leave the responsibility to a healthcare professional. A person’s preferences for involvement in decision making may vary depending on their specific medical situation.

Good communication depends on recognising and meeting the needs of patients

Communication between patients and healthcare professionals may be affected by factors such as:

  • age
  • gender
  • health status
  • education
  • cultural background.

Recognising the impact of such factors helps to improve communication.

Perceptions of risks and benefits are complex

Influences such as personal experiences, emotions and education shape perceptions of risks and benefits and thus differ from one person to another. Your priorities may be different than your patients’.

Communicating these perceptions can help you and your patients understand each other’s perspectives and arrive at decisions that meet your patients’ individual needs.

Information on risks and benefits needs to be comprehensive and accessible

To communicate risk in a way that is objective, useful and unbiased, take into account factors such as:

  • emotions
  • language
  • images and perceptions
  • relevance and amount of information
  • uncertainty
  • the effects of ‘framing’ information, for example by portraying it in a positive or negative way.

Principles for talking about clinical trials with your patients

Patients may be interested in clinical trials to either better understand and manage their condition, or to play a part in improving health care.

When speaking with potential participants:

  • acknowledge the trauma associated with their diagnosis (if appropriate) by displaying empathy in response to emotional reactions
  • simplify information by avoiding medical jargon and a laundry list of medications and side effects
  • summarise information often and repeat important points
  • provide a pen and paper for the patient to take notes and write down questions
  • invite patients to make comments or ask questions at any time
  • encourage patients to share their thoughts and feelings
  • tell patients that all questions are good questions
  • stress the importance of information-seeking and ask them questions in an open-ended manner. For example, ‘What questions do you have?’
  • check that you have answered any questions to your patient’s satisfaction
  • talk about the role of clinical trials in health care and how treatments improve over time due to clinical research and the participation of patients in clinical trials
  • avoid recommending a specific clinical trial, but, if asked, respond appropriately.
Date last updated:
  • Potential patients