How to call people in a study

People in clinical studies go by many different terms–patients, participants, subjects,… This blog post clarifies which term is the best choice and why the others aren’t ideal.

Clinical studies typically revolve around a group of people who receive treatment. But how do we call these individuals? Participants, subjects, patients? If you read three different papers, you probably find three different preferences of terminology. However, only one term is technically and politically correct.

Sounds scientific but…
 sounds like a person with limited autonomy. Thus, please avoid this term. Participant should be better, right? It sounds like the included individuals have actively decided to be part of the study. However, ‘participant’ is a poor choice, too. People in clinical trials typically are studied; they don’t actively participate. In fact, they may not even be aware of the project but only at some point consented to the idea that their data are used for research. So, ‘participant’ gives the wrong impression. 

Best choice
is usually the best term to describe people in clinical studies, e.g., “The study included 120 patients with diabetes.” Granted, some studies include a control group of individuals without known significant health problems. Thus, it would be wrong to call the members of such control arms ‘patients’. Instead, the descriptor for these people is healthy controls or healthy volunteers.

I acknowledge that it may look like ‘patient’ is a less inclusive term for people in a trial because –unlike ‘participants’ and ‘subjects’– ‘patients’ describes only those with a disease. However, you don’t need an umbrella term because you will have to define the treatment groups at some point. 

So, when reporting on a trial that included healthy controls, you could say something along the lines of: “The study population included 120 patients with diabetes and 120 healthy controls.” Or: “In total, the trial included 240 individuals, 120 patients with diabetes and 120 healthy controls.”

Completely wrong
This is a rare mistake but occasionally it crops up, so I have to mention it here: People are not cases. ‘Case’ refers to an instance, not a person. For example, a study may report 105 cases of thrombosis among 120 patients with diabetes aged 18–65. However, it would be wrong to say that the study includes 120 cases of diabetes aged 18–65.

I hope these tips are useful to you. Let me know how you’re getting on, and: Happy writing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: