What is health research
Health research refers to the many types of scientific investigations that aim to test ideas, answer questions, improve treatment options and increase knowledge about human health.
Learn more about:
- Types of health research
- Why is health research important?
- Why participate in research?
- Who can participate in research?
- Where does research take place?
- Is research safe?
- Who funds cancer research?
- What is a conflict of interest?
What we know about cancer changes over time as more research is done. Health research has led to the medical treatments and health programs available today. These advances have helped the five-year survival rate for all cancers to rise from 52% to 68% over the past 20 years.
The search for better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat human diseases is ongoing. It requires the active participation of patients, carers and healthy people.
The involvement of patients, carers and healthy people in research is necessary to help researchers learn more about a disease and ways to treat it. Most people diagnosed with cancer who decide to participate in research do so because they want to help improve outcomes for others in the future, as well as for themselves.
Adults and children can participate in different ways, including:
- consenting to their medical records being accessed
- completing surveys
- trialling treatments
- agreeing to be examined regularly by health professionals
- allowing samples taken during tests or treatment to be used for research.
All research studies, including clinical trials, have guidelines setting out who can participate. Both adults and children can take part, but children under the age of 18 need a parent’s or guardian’s permission. Most cancer research involves current patients, however, some studies target former patients, carers, family members, people at risk of cancer or people who have not had the disease.
It is important that people of all ages and social, economic and racial backgrounds take part so the results reflect Australia’s diverse population. Deciding to take part can help you weigh up the benefits and risks of being in a study, and answer other questions you may have. Learn more about participating in clinical trials or other types of cancer research.
Research is carried out in many places, including hospitals, cancer centres, laboratories and universities. Sometimes you can participate from home – you might have treatment or medicines mailed to you, or you might be asked to fill in a survey or complete a telephone interview.
Understandably, people want to know if there are any risks to participating in a study. Researchers must follow strict guidelines to make sure studies are as safe as possible for everyone involved. This is called their duty of care.
All studies need to be approved by human research ethics committees before they can begin. As part of this process, researchers identify risks that might occur, such as possible side effects. They must also explain how they’ll monitor these risks and what will be done if problems occur. For more on this, see Regulation of clinical research.
Funding comes from many sources. These sources include:
National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) – This is the Australian Government’s main funding body for medical research. The NHMRC awards grants to researchers based on their ability to investigate important questions about human health. The NHMRC also administers the government’s Medical Research Future Fund.
Cancer charities – State and territory Cancer Councils and other charities receive donations from the public, and grants from both public and private sectors. This funds their own research and allows them to financially support research carried out by other institutions.
Government bodies – Other Australian, state and territory government agencies offer a competitive grants program to fund research and to employ cancer trials staff.
Medical research institutions and clinics – These sometimes use their own resources to support research.
Private sector (industry funded) – Companies producing medicines and medical equipment run trials to check safety and effectiveness before applying for licences to sell these products. Private companies may also fund research in partnership with a university or other research institution, or for goodwill (philanthropic) reasons.
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)
The NHMRC’s mission is to build a healthy Australia. It does this by:
The NHMRC also produces guidelines outlining ethical conduct in research.
Ethics committees must follow these guidelines and report to the NHMRC every year. For more on this, download the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007) (updated 2018).
A conflict of interest may arise in any research project. This means the interests of an organisation or researcher could influence the outcome of the research. Researchers are required to disclose any possible or actual conflicts of interest. All research projects should include details of how a conflict of interest will be managed.
This edition has been developed by Cancer Council NSW on behalf of all other state and territory Cancer Councils as part of a National Cancer Information Working Group initiative. We thank the reviewers of this booklet: A/Prof Andrew Redfern, Consultant Medical Oncologist, Fiona Stanley Hospital, Clinical Academic Oncologist, The University of Western Australia, and Lead Clinician, State Breast Cancer Collaborative, WA; Christie Allan, Program Coordinator – Clinical Trials, Cancer Council Victoria; Bronwyn Chalmers, Clinical Trial Coordinator, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute, NSW; Sarah Coulson, Coordinator, Oncology Clinical Trials, Projects and Research, Tasmanian Health Service, TAS; Kate Cox, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Annette Cubitt, Clinical Trials Manager, Department of Medical Oncology, Cancer Care Services, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Pete Currie, Consumer; Amy Ives, Clinical Trials Coordinator, Department of Medical Oncology, Cancer Care Services, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Sabina Jelinek, Clinical Research Nurse, Murdoch Oncology Clinical Trials Unit, WA; Dr Visalini Nair-Shalliker, Research Fellow – Prostate, Cancer Council NSW; Karlie Neilson, Project Officer – Cancer Research Division, Cancer Council NSW; Prof Mark Rosenthal, Medical Oncologist, and Director, Parkville Cancer Clinical Trials Unit, VIC; Joan Torony, CEO, TROG Cancer Research, NSW; Rebecca Weselman, Senior Clinical Trials Coordinator, Oncology Clinical Trials, St John of God Murdoch Hospital, WA; John Williams, Research Governance Officer, Cancer Council NSW.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Click below to download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum
Need legal and financial assistance?
Pro bono services, financial and legal assistance, and no interest loans
Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment
Learn about common cancer treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy
Dealing with the diagnosis
Common reactions to a cancer diagnosis and how to find hope
View our publications
Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends