Ethnic minorities and health research

December 05, 2005

Racial and ethnic minorities are just as willing to participate in health research as non-minorities, but often are less likely to be invited to participate, according to a new study published in PLoS Medicine.

Prior to the study, it was widely believed that individuals from minority groups were less willing to participate in health research. This presumed relative unwillingness was believed to be a result of past abuses, especially the US government-funded Tuskegee Syphilis Study. To assess the natural course of untreated syphilis, the Tuskegee researchers enrolled 399 African-American men in the late stages of syphilis, but kept them in the dark about the nature of their illness and failed to treat them with penicillin when it became available.

In the new study, Dr David Wendler of the National Institutes of Health and colleagues systematically assessed health research studies that reported the willingness of individuals from racial and ethnic minority groups to participate when invited. In the 20 studies they identified, racial and ethnic minorities were just as willing, and sometimes more willing to participate than non-Hispanic whites.

The authors also found that individuals from minority groups were less likely to be invited to participate in a number of the identified studies. For example, one study comparing drug treatment against surgery for treating heart disease offered enrollment to 2,065 non-Hispanic whites, but to only 30 individuals from all minority groups.

To ensure that results can be applied to everyone in a multicultural society, it is important that all racial and ethnic groups participate in health research. Dr Wendler and colleagues conclude that, "Efforts to increase minority participation in health research should focus on ensuring access to health research for all groups, rather than changing minority attitudes."
Citation: Wendler D, Kington R, Madans J, Van Wye G, Christ-Schmidt H, et al. (2006) Are racial and ethnic minorities less willing to participate in health research? PLoS Med 3(2): e19.

David Wendler
National Institutes of Health
Department of Clinical Bioethics
The NIH Clinical Center
Bethesda, MD USA 20892

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