Table of Contents
There is a multitude of ways to conduct medical research, and in this article we’ll review the most popular forms of medical research. Medical research methods can range from hands-on to simply analyzing existing information and data.
In this article, we’ll cover the different methods of basic medical research, including clinical medical studies and medical epidemiological studies.
Primary and Secondary Medical Research
The two main types of medical research can be classified as primary research or secondary research. When a researcher collects raw data by conducting studies, this is considered primary research. On the other hand, if the researcher is evaluating data collected from your own or someone else’s primary research, that is considered secondary research.
There are three main types of primary research:
- Clinical research
- Epidemiological research
Lab-based research involves scientists examining diseases and treatments, whereas clinical researchers focus on testing new and analyzing existing treatments. Epidemiologists, on the other hand, examine different populations to try to determine the cause and distribution of a disease or diseases.
Let’s take a look at each of these in a bit more detail.
Also referred to as basic research, this medical research method includes a controlled experiment, to either understand chemical interactions, cells, biologic agents, or genetic material. In this type of research, specific hypotheses are tested and the results can be used to develop medical treatments, or even new ways of diagnosing conditions. Since the research is taking place inside a lab, the researcher can control the variables to a much higher extent than can be possible outside the lab.
This form of primary research can be “applied” or “theoretical”. The goal of applied medical research is to solve a problem, like treating a disease. Applied research is conducted in several different ways, most commonly by examining chemical processes and the metabolic basis for diseases (biochemistry), animal studies, the study of cell development and their role in treatment and/or disease, genomics to examine how genes interact with the development of disease, and pharmacogenetics to understand how a person’s genetic makeup may affect treatment response.
Theoretical medical research approaches are less direct, and help develop methods to support other types of research methodology. For example, theoretical research has improved our understanding of gene markers and sequencing, as well as aided in the development of better imaging technology.
Clinical studies are conducted to help us understand the treatment, prevention and improve our knowledge about diseases. Typically, these types of studies look at individuals within a particular population. Clinical research can be preventative, observational or interventional in nature. Often the effectiveness or safety of a new drug is what is being tested, but clinical research can also look at surgical interventions, physical and emotional bases, as well as observing how new medical devices are working.
Clinical trials are usually classified into four different phases. Each phase is considered a different clinical trial. For example, the development of a new drug will include these phases, which can take several years to be concluded. If the drug passes through the first three phases, it is usually approved by a national regulatory authority for use by the general population. Some clinical research projects often include a fourth step, referred to as the “post-approval” research phase.
Epidemiological Medical Research
Epidemiological researchers are looking at the causes, population distribution, and changes in the frequency of a particular disease process. For example, scientists have studied trends in cancer and COVID-19 outbreaks to determine what caused them and how to prevent the spread of these diseases in the future. Generally, these studies are observational, due to ethical concerns, social and political factors as well as health risk considerations.
When an epidemiological study is interventional, it can be exploring changes in disease (or health) outcomes after the introduction of the intervention that is being studied. For example, adding fluoride to drinking water, or implementing a diet lower in red meat are examples of epidemiological interventional studies. An observational epidemiological study can include thousands of subjects and investigates a group’s health in relation to specific variables. For instance, observational studies have looked at how different levels of sugar intake affect the occurrence of type 2 diabetes.
Choosing the Best Study Type
Deciding the best medical research method for your research question isn’t just about scientific factors. You also have to look at things like resources (financial and human), capacity, and if the research is practical. It’s also easy to think that secondary research does not involve as much planning and implementation effort as primary research, but the demands for both should be just as high. The same goes for intervention versus observational studies. Additionally, clinical studies require stringent adherence to legal regulations, from planning to the evaluation of the research study.
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