Treatment training manual

8. 3 Why research is important

For the last 30 years, modern medical care has been based on evidence-based medicine. Although it sounds obvious, 30 years is a very short time.

Evidence-based medicine involves using treatments or strategies that have been proven to work in research studies.

Before this, care was based on expert opinion and traditional practices. The differences are really important.

Good research, if it is well designed, can prove why one treatment is better than another.

Without research, medical care would only be based on:

  • Guesswork or intuition (which might not be right).
  • Hope or beliefs (which might not be right).
  • Atypical, random or lucky results (which might not be right).
  • Commercial advertising, marketing and hype (which can be biased, or invented or lies).

Evidence from carefully-run studies overcomes this guesswork.

Another foundation of scientific research is that repeating a study exactly should produce the same results. This is why researchers need to report every detail when they publish their results. It is also why medical care usually needs results to be validated by several similar studies before they are widely used.

Research studies can show whether some drugs are better than others. Or the best way of using HIV treatment (ART).

  • Many studies show that it is better to start ART using an integrase inhibitor than other types of HIV drugs.
  • Other studies have shown that it is better to start ART early after you are diagnosed, rather than waiting until HIV already reduces your CD4 count.

Both these examples lead to changes in national and international guidelines on how to treat HIV. They were both based on evidence from a type of study called a randomised controlled trial (RCT).

RCTs are often said to produce the best and most reliable evidence (ie they are called the gold standard).

Other types of study can be just as important. For some research questions it might not be practical or ethical to randomise participants.

RCTs are usually large, expensive studies that can run for years before they produce results.

Last updated: 1 January 2023.