What is health research

Health research refers to the many types of scientific investigations that aim to answer questions, test ideas, improve treatment options and increase knowledge about human health.

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Why is health research important?

What we know about cancer evolves over time as more and more research is done. Health research has helped make the medical treatments and health programs available today possible. These advances have contributed to the five-year survival rate from all cancers increasing from 47% to 66% in the past two decades.

The search for better methods of prevention, diagnosis and treatment for all human diseases is ongoing and requires the active participation of patients, carers and healthy people.

Why participate in research?

The involvement of patients, carers and healthy people in research helps researchers learn more about a disease. Adults and children can participate in different ways, including:

  • consenting to their medical records being accessed
  • completing surveys
  • having treatments that have never been given to people before or only to a small number of people
  • agreeing to be examined regularly by health professionals.

Before participating, find out more about clinical trials or other types of cancer research. Making decisions can help you weigh up the benefits and risks of being in a study and answer other questions you may have.

Who can participate in research?

Both adults and children can participate, but children under the age of 18 need a parent’s or guardian’s permission. While most cancer research involves cancer patients, some studies target carers, family members, people at risk or people not diagnosed with cancer. 

It is important that people of all ages and social, economic and racial backgrounds take part so the results reflect Australia’s diverse population.

How many people participate in cancer research?

The participation rate of adults in cancer clinical trials is low.

In Australia, only 2–3% of adult cancer patients take part, and the rate is lower among minority groups and women. The participation rate is much higher for children – about 85% – even though there are far fewer children than adults who are diagnosed with cancer. This has led to a great improvement in children’s survival rates because children have been able to access promising treatments, and the evidence for their effectiveness has been obtained quickly.

The number of people participating in other types of cancer research is unknown, but it may be higher than the clinical trial participation rate. This is because other research may need people during or after their treatment, there may be fewer restrictions and risks, and the time commitment is usually shorter.

Read more about how many people participate in cancer research

Is research safe?

Understandably, people want to know if there are any risks to them 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 specially appointed research and ethics committees before they can begin. As part of this process, researchers describe risks, such as possible side effects, that they predict might occur. They must also explain how they will reduce these risks and what will be done if problems occur. For more information, see Regulating research.

Where does research take place?

Research is carried out in many places, including hospitals, 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.

Who funds cancer research?

Funding comes from many sources.

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) – This is the Government’s main funding body for medical research. NHMRC grants are awarded to researchers based on their ability to investigate important questions about human health.

Medical research institutions and clinics – These often use their own resources to support research.

Policymakers and government – The government and their advisers often require scientific information when making decisions about health programs. They sometimes provide funding for independent research on specific policy questions.

Government bodies – They offer a competitive grants program to fund research and to employ cancer trials staff.

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 supports research carried out by other institutions.

Private sector – Companies producing medicines and medical equipment run trials to determine 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.

Read more about who funds cancer research

This information was last reviewed in May 2015
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