How to read a clinical trial

Interested in learning about new MS research and treatments? You may find some of the answers you're looking for in a clinical trial report. A clinical trial is a study done in humans to answer a specific health-related question (e.g., to find out whether a new MS medication slows down the progression of the disease). Clinical trial reports, which are published in medical journals, can seem a bit intimidating. But once you know the basics, they can be a great source of information.

Here's how to read a clinical trial:

First, start with the title. This will give you a basic idea of whether the study can help answer your question. If not, then find another trial. If so, read on.

Next, check the abstract. An abstract, found at the beginning of the paper, is a quick summary of how the study was done and the results the researchers found. This will help you learn more about the study and what it found, and confirm that the information in the paper may be of interest to you. If not, then find another trial. If so, read on.

Now, take a look at how the trial was done. This will help you find out whether it was a good-quality study. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Was the study done in humans? Ideally, you're looking for studies done in humans, because test tube (in vitro) and animal studies mean the research is still at an early stage.
  • Was the study treatment compared with a current, well-established treatment, or with a placebo ("sugar pill" with no medicinal ingredients)? The better studies will test the treatment against a placebo or another well-established treatment to see how it compares.
  • Were the study participants assigned randomly to a treatment group? If study personnel were allowed to choose which patients went into which groups, this could lead to bias.
  • Were the treatment groups similar to each other in all ways, and treated equally throughout the study, except for which study treatment they were receiving? This makes it more likely that any differences between groups are due to the treatment being studied and not to other factors.
  • How many people were in the study? Clinical studies will use the letter "n" to mean "number of people in the study." In general, the more people in the study, the better.
  • How long were the study participants followed? Longer follow-up helps us better understand the long-term benefits and side effects of treatment.
  • At the end of the study, were all study participants accounted for? Did a large number of them "drop out" of the study? If so, this may affect the results. The authors should explain how many people dropped out and what effect, if any, this may have on the results.
  • Were the study participants, their doctors, and other "study personnel" "blind" to treatment? In other words, did anyone know which treatment the study participants were getting? The best studies will use a "double-blind" design where neither the study participants nor the doctors and other study personnel know which treatment the participants are receiving (the patients and treatments are coded so that when the study is being analyzed after it has been done, it is known which treatment has produced which effect, but during the study the participants don't know). This helps get rid of bias due to expectations that people may have from a certain treatment.

You can find the answers to these questions in the study report. If you find that the study was well done (see the explanations above), then the next step is to look at the results and figure out how they apply to you. For tips, see "Putting information into perspective."

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