Many different types of people take part in clinical trials. Some are healthy, while others may have illnesses. Research procedures with healthy volunteers are designed to develop new knowledge, not to provide direct benefit to those taking part. Healthy volunteers have always played an important role in research.

Healthy volunteers are needed for several reasons. When developing a new technique, such as a blood test or imaging device, healthy volunteers help define the limits of “normal.” These volunteers are the baseline against which patient groups are compared and are often matched to patients on factors such as age, gender, or family relationship. They receive the same tests, procedures, or drugs the patient group receives. Researchers learn about the disease process by comparing the patient group to the healthy volunteers.

Factors like how much of your time is needed, discomfort you may feel, or risk involved depends on the trial. While some require minimal amounts of time and effort, other studies may require a major commitment of your time and effort, and may involve some discomfort. The research procedure(s) may also carry some risk. The informed consent process for healthy volunteers includes a detailed discussion of the study’s procedures and tests and their risks.

A patient volunteer has a known health problem and takes part in research to better understand, diagnose, or treat that disease or condition. Research with a patient volunteer helps develop new knowledge. Depending on the stage of knowledge about the disease or condition, these procedures may or may not benefit the study participants.

Patients may volunteer for studies similar to those in which healthy volunteers take part. These studies involve drugs, devices, or treatments designed to prevent, or treat disease. Although these studies may provide direct benefit to patient volunteers, the main aim is to prove, by scientific means, the effects and limitations of the experimental treatment.

Therefore, some patient groups may serve as a baseline for comparison by not taking the test drug, or by receiving test doses of the drug large enough only to show that it is present, but not at a level that can treat the condition.

Researchers follow clinical trials guidelines when deciding who can participate in a study. These guidelines are called inclusion and exclusion criteria. Factors that allow you to take part in a clinical trial are called “inclusion criteria.” Those that exclude or prevent participation are “exclusion criteria.”

These criteria are based on factors such as age, gender, the type and stage of a disease, treatment history, and other medical conditions. Before joining a clinical trial, you must provide information that allows the research team to determine whether or not you can take part in the study safely. Some research studies seek participants with illnesses or conditions to be studied in the clinical trial, while others need healthy volunteers. Inclusion and exclusion criteria are not used to reject people personally. Instead, the criteria are used to identify appropriate participants and keep them safe, and to help ensure that researchers can find new information they need.

Reproduced with permission from NIH Clinical Trials and You. NIH does not endorse or recommend any products, services, or information described or offered here by Healthline. Page last reviewed on October 20, 2017.