What does a Clinical Trial Investigator do?

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  • Originally Written By: Kevin P. Hanson
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 29 November 2019
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A clinical trial researcher’s main job is usually to oversee the process of testing drugs and medical procedures on human subjects, making sure that the processes are ethical, safe, and reported properly to the governing authorities. In most cases investigators are trained physicians with significant experience practicing in one of more of the fields covered by the trial. A renowned oncologist, for instance, might sign on to investigate a cancer drug trial — he or she would have the subject matter expertise to quickly anticipate likely results, and could also prepare participants and staff members about what to expect. This person has a number of important responsibilities, beginning with getting the trial approved and enrolling participants; from there, he or she is usually in charge of making sure that the actual testing goes as planned, then must tabulate the results and get them published. Most investigators do all of this in addition to maintaining a regular practice and continuing to see patients. They are typically compensated for their involvement, which is one incentive, and many also like the chance to meet other professionals and expand their skills.


Oversight Role

Most countries around the world require pharmaceutical drugs to undergo a series of tests before they can be sold to the general public, and the clinical trial process is one of the most common ways for regulators to get a sense of what a drug is capable of and what its risks are. Drug manufacturers are usually the first to propose trials and start getting them arranged, but in most cases they can’t run them entirely on their own. The laws of most countries require robust participation from a number of outside actors, to ensure reliability and impartiality of results among other things. The clinical trial investigator is usually the most important person in the process.

As the title implies, this person’s primary role in investigative. He or she makes sure that everything is run strictly “by the books” and follows all required protocol. This typically includes everything from making sure that any physical research facilities are up to code to regulating how patient information is stored, identified, and ultimately shared. Investigators are essentially like project managers or bosses who oversee and have the power to delegate work to others, but they themselves usually bear ultimate responsibility for the outcome.

Getting Necessary Approval

Doing the administrative work necessary to get the trials approved by local and national regulatory officials may also fall on the investigator. In most cases the drug manufacturers have done at least the preliminary work on this front, but as the trial develops and people start enrolling, it’s usually up to the investigator to make sure that the appropriate authorities know what’s going on and have all the right filings.

Enrolling Participants

Actually getting human subjects to serve as trial participants is another important aspect of the job, and is sometimes one of the reasons physicians want to work as investigators in the first place. Many of the most cutting-edge drugs for really aggressive illnesses are only available in trials. Patients who haven’t responded to medications that are available on the mass market are some of the best people to participate in trials, and in terminal patients the possibility that a tested medication might work can be life-saving. At least for popular conditions and medications, though, trials often have long waiting lists. Physicians who serve as investigators can sometimes prioritize their own patients, which ensures both a full trial and a roster of patients that are known — to at least some degree — by the administrator.

Managing Results

Investigators usually take steps to make sure that all portions of the testing are conducted in exactly the same way, including everything from patient position during drug administration to the intervals at which results are recorded. The investigator is also usually responsible for wrapping up the trial and analyzing the results, then turning those results into a formal report that will be sent both to the manufacturer and to the governmental regulatory authority.

In most cases the job ends once these papers have been filed, but there are instances when the investigator may need to be on hand to answer questions or defend decisions. This is most common when approval is denied, or when problems arise later on with things like side effects or other adverse reactions that weren’t discovered or disclosed during testing.

Balancing Other Responsibilities

A doctor does not typically need to have an association with a teaching hospital or medical school to be an investigator, nor does he or she need to have prior experience to qualify. The exact process for becoming a clinical trial investigator can vary from place to place, but in many instances interested physicians put their information on file with commercial trial organizers, who will then alert them if a pending trial in their area is looking for someone with their expertise.

From there, the physician will probably need to interview with the drug manufacturer or its representative, and will learn more about the work. One of the most important factors the physician needs to consider is how he or she will manage the trial while also continuing to work. Trials typically take a tremendous amount of time, but investigators don’t often halt their other obligations while participating.

When a physician considers the possibility of participating in a clinical trial, he might want to consider if the trial will fit into his patient population. He should also consider if he or she has the equipment required to conduct the trial. Adequate staff to perform all of these duties is another requirement.


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Discuss this Article

Post 7

@Sunny27 - I agree with you and I wanted to add that the clinical trial monitoring process is critical because you want to make sure that any adverse effects of the medication in the study are recorded and dealt with before the medication is approved by the FDA.

I have seen a lot of clinical trials that have patient recruitment ads and I always wonder about the potential side effects of these studies and if anyone ever gets sick. I know that many times the participants are compensated for their time, but I wonder how many people participate in these clinical trials for the money.

I don’t know the clinical trial protocol, but how do they ensure that the participants are afflicted with the conditions of the study. For example, if this is a diabetes drug that they are testing do they give every participant a diabetes test to make sure that they have it? I always wondered about that.

Post 6

@SweetPeas - I think that clinical research investigators are doing a great service to society because their research can lead to the development of drugs that can enhance the quality of life for many people.

Sometimes it is through these clinical trial phases that people with a terminal illness get to try medication that might prolong their lives. I know that many people for example that have a stage four cancer diagnosis might feel more hope when they are exposed to these experimental drugs.

I hope that these clinical trial researchers do find a cure for this dreadful disease because we have lost too many people too soon. I know that the advances that they have been made thus far are a direct result of many of these clinical trials.

Post 5

@indemnifyme - It was probably really interesting for your friend to work as part of a clinical trial. I bet she probably couldn't tell you that much about what she was actually doing though. I know there are some pretty strict laws about patient confidentiality that I'm sure still do apply to clinical trials.

Post 4

A friend of mine got her undergraduate degree in biology and she worked in clinical trials for awhile. She told me that a good clinical trial investigator has to be meticulous and ethical, as well as dedicated.

Sometimes its extremely competitive to get funding for trials, and of course everyone wants to publish a successful paper. So it's extremely important the investigator be ethical enough to run the trial the way it should be run. Not to mention that they might be under a lot of pressure to succeed when testing a promising new drug.

I don't necessarily think working as a clinical trial investigator would really be a "break" for a doctor though. It sounds like a lot of work.

Post 3

I think that it's a good idea for physicians to take a break from seeing patients everyday and to work as a clinical trial investigator.

These important clinical trials need physicians who are well trained and experienced in the particular disease or medication that is being studied. This is a very different type of work than private practice and, I"m sure, that it brings a good feeling of satisfaction to the doctor. Being a part of an investigation that may bring benefit to a lot of suffering people would be very rewarding.

Post 2

I look for a variety of focus group jobs that companies or service organization use to get opinions and suggestions about the companies or service organizations. To become a part of a focus group, you must meet very specific criteria.

I often see advertisements asking for people to be part of clinical trials. To make the investigation non-biased, research subjects must meet particular criteria. This is where the clinical trial investigator comes in. He/she chooses and monitors the research subjects. The investigator is responsible for the reliability and accuracy of the trials.

Research subjects are given medication or various treatments for their ailment. Once in a while they may also receive a monetary award.

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