What are clinical trials and how do they work?

A clinical trial is a research study designed to learn how our bodies respond to medicines or other treatments. Clinical trials:

  • Test new ways to help prevent, find, diagnose, or treat diseases
  • Help find out if new investigational treatments, or new uses for existing treatments, are safe and work well

Clinical trials are sometimes called clinical studies and clinical research.

Clinical trials happen in phases

Before health authority approval, any treatment (vaccine, medicine, medical device, or procedure) must go through 4 phases of clinical trials. Each phase tests the treatment’s safety, how well it works, amount (dose), and side effects. Participation in clinical trials is voluntary.

Young nurse smiling at an older patient with a cane as she sits next to him.

The importance of diverse participants

Age, race, gender, ethnicity, and many other factors play into how a person will react to an investigational medication treatment. To find out if a treatment is safe and works well for all people, researchers must have diverse participants in clinical trials. To read more about Merck’s commitment to diversity in clinical trials, visit our Diversity section.

Visit our Diversity page

Clinical trial participation

Taking part in a clinical trial is a process. We’ve outlined the steps you can expect before, during, and after being in a clinical trial.

Visit our Participation process page

Young woman handing from to another woman.
Older woman leaning toward a young girl holding a plate.

What to consider before joining

Before you decide if you’ll join a clinical trial, learn as much as possible about it. You should feel comfortable asking the researchers all your questions about the trial, the care you can expect, and if there are costs. Explore our list of questions to ask the research team.

Visit our What to consider page

Still have questions?

Understanding clinical trials is important when making the decision to join one. Our FAQ section has answers to commonly asked questions and a glossary of words to know.

Frequently asked questions

Glossary

Female doctor showing clipboard to an older man and woman.