The Impact of Public Perception of Clinical Research

Undoubtedly one of the biggest news stories around the world during the past year has been the one surrounding the anticipation and development of the various COVID-19 vaccines. Everyone on the planet has a reason to be interested in that story, and a lot of people have opinions on the subject. How many know the intricacies of vaccine development or clinical research? Too few, and that’s a problem.

While those of us immersed in the clinical research industry appreciate the rigor and exactitude put into the trials that have given us the vaccines, most people in the general public know little to nothing about it. Unfortunately, that ignorance can lead to suspicion and worse, especially when clinical research becomes politicized.

Unfortunately, a fundamental problem with this in particular is many people don’t realize they may not be as informed as they think. A 2017 study by The Center for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation (CISCRP) found that while 82% of people surveyed globally reported they felt well-informed about clinical research, further questioning revealed their knowledge was “superficial.” The study also revealed lack of clinical research knowledge negatively impacts perceptions:

“People who are less informed about clinical research are less likely to trust pharmaceutical companies, less likely to think clinical research is important to the discovery of new medicines . . . and are less likely to think that clinical trials are safe.”

There are thousands of clinical trials underway globally at any time. Hearing so little about them is one indication of how well they operate. But generally, silence around clinical research also allowed space for a vast knowledge gap, and that’s a problem.

Consider the results from a pre-COVID-19 research paper, which found the following in regard to Americans’ views of medical research scientists:

  • Only one in three Americans think researchers do a good job conducting research, care about public interest, and provide accurate information
  • Just 15% believe researchers are open about potential conflicts of interest
  • Almost 50% think research misconduct is a big problem
  • Only 13% believe there are serious consequences for such misconduct

This doesn’t bode well for our current situation, in which broad acceptance of vaccination for COVID-19 is necessary for success in the fight against the disease and misinformation is widespread. The New Yorker took up the subject of vaccine misinformation in a recent issue. The article paints a clear picture of the uphill battle faced by proponents of vaccination against COVID-19 and the vast damage caused by the rapid-fire spread of misinformation in our hyper-connected world.

Because of speed of the COVID-19 vaccine trials, hesitations from the public are understandable. But given the staggering amount of effort, investment, communication, attention, expertise, and skill applied to the task, isn’t it reasonable to expect a good outcome?

It has been eye-opening to nearly everyone in recent months to see how much more effective the process is when the need arises. This is good news for us all. This is progress, the kind of progress that saves lives. What a shame it is viewed in so many quarters with skepticism and suspicion.

What can those of us on the inside do? Continue to do our jobs well, develop easy and understandable resources to share the knowledge we have, and encourage more people to learn about the benefits and opportunities of clinical research now while we have the world’s attention.

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