A Prescription for Participation: Diabetes Study Helping African Americans Overcome Fears of Ethnic Medical Research

By St. John, Eric | Black Issues in Higher Education, December 11, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Prescription for Participation: Diabetes Study Helping African Americans Overcome Fears of Ethnic Medical Research


St. John, Eric, Black Issues in Higher Education


They don't want to take pills. They're unwilling to participate in randomized trials. They are reluctant to take a chance," says Robert Ratner, M.D., head of the Medlantic Clinical Research Center in Washington, D.C., discussing why some people don't want to participate in medical research. "There remains reluctance to participate in any medical study. Some of it is, `I want someone else to do it so I "know it's safe, then I'll do it' -- the guinea-pig phenomenon."

Historically, the level of participation of African Americans in medical research studies has been modest. Wary of the motives of those conducting the research -- especially in light of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment -- Blacks have tended to shy away from men and women in lab coats.

That may be changing however, and an example of that change is the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) diabetes study.

NIH is conducting the study -- called the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) -- at twenty-five sites around the country. The purpose of the study is to examine ways to prevent type 2 diabetes -- a disease which is developed over time in adults and which causes inadequate processing of sugars in the body.

An important aspect of the study is the mandated participation of minorities. Guidelines for institutions conducting the research state that half of the participants are to be minorities. To accomplish that, community fears about past research studies had to be assuaged.

"There is a reluctance to participate [in medical research studies] in all ethnic groups," says Ratner. "They have some very real concerns. For instance: To what extent is the research explained?; Will it be relevant to them?; And are the goals of the program acceptable? People will not go into a study that they don't understand or trust."

Recalling the History

Medical research studies have often been problematic for minorities. In fact, some of the studies regarding African Americans had very little to do with real medical research. In the nineteenth century, Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina cited statistics from the 1840 U.S. Census as proof that free Blacks were more likely than slaves to be mentally defective.

Samuel A. Cartwright, a New Orleans physician and contemporary of Calhoun's, also offered "proof" that Blacks were inferior to Whites based on anatomical and epidemiological surveys.

Perhaps the most infamous research affecting African Americans was this century's Tuskegee syphilis experiment. In that case, the federal government withheld a syphilis cure from hundreds of male participants in a study that lasted four decades. President Bill Clinton formally apologized for that experiment last spring.

When news of what actually occurred during the Tuskegee syphilis experiment was made public, it had a chilling effect on African American participation in medical research in this country.

"Because of the way research has been carried out [in the past]," Ratner says, "there is concern. The Tuskegee experiment has had an effect on that."

African Americans aren't the only minorities leery of ethnic medical research. The Jewish community, for example, has had its problems with the lab-coat set. Nazi Germany's genocidal use of Jews for scientific experimentation is well documented. The recent discovery of a cancer gene that is found in one of six Jews of Eastern European ancestry but virtually absent in non-Jews is causing some consternation within the Jewish community.

And research on women's health problems has been said to be too male-oriented and male-dominated in its approach and conclusions. Drug companies have kept women of childbearing age out of such studies because of worries that some drugs may harm a fetus if the participant were to get pregnant. In September, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a regulation that would force drug companies to include more young women in studies of new medicines. …

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