I urge more black people in the Baltimore area to seek out and participate in clinical research at respected research institutions such as the University of Maryland, where studies cannot be conducted on human beings of any race without the approval of a review board of researchers, clinicians and community representatives. Safeguards are in place; Tuskegee cannot and will not be repeated here.
Only through research that dares to ask difficult, perhaps politically incorrect, questions about racial differences in the development of disease and response to treatment can medical science find ways to save more black lives and prevent more disease and disability in the black population.
To return to my British colleagues' dire predictions about finding participants for my research, I'm pleased to report that not only were we able to recruit 150 black people into the first-ever study of the effects of dietary salt on two generations of African-Caribbeans living in England, but we ended up with another 200 on a waiting list, begging us to return and study them, too.
How did we accomplish it? My wife (who is also a physician) and I are black, and we recruited our study participants through two churches whose ministers and members knew my uncle in Baltimore, who is one of their bishops. Many of them knew me from previous visits.
I won't deny those were advantages that helped get us through the door, but then we had to stand on our own two feet and prove ourselves trustworthy, like anybody else. We told the people exactly what we were asking them to do, and why. We didn't promise them anything we could not deliver. We shared the results of every medical exam and laboratory test with them and with their physicians. We made ourselves available for consultation with their physicians, gave lectures at medical meetings and offered follow-up dietary counseling by local nurses and trained community volunteers.
They knew we weren't just coming in, taking something we wanted from them without giving them anything in return and then disappearing.
Just as I encourage African- Americans to participate in more medical research studies, I urge researchers to become more sensitive to the medical needs and concerns of minority groups, to make an effort to include on their research teams physicians and lay persons from the target community, to make the results of any tests available to the participants and their physicians, and to incorporate an educational/counseling component into their research.
I suggest that pre- and post-study lectures or seminars be given to the professionals in the community, as well as similar activities during the course of the study, especially if it is a long-term study. We acknowledge that there were dreadful mistakes and inexcusable mistreatment in the past, but we have learned from them. Safeguards have been put in place to ensure that the Tuskegee experiment will not be repeated.
It is time to move forward, to perform and to participate in the research that can help save black lives.
Elijah Saunders, M.D., is head of the Division of Hypertension at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Pub Date: 8/17/97