On Talking: Some Thoughts on Mental Health

We are told to talk.
Talking will change things;
Talking will ‘end the stigma‘.

I have talked,
I am still talking,
Talking is not enough.

Today is World Mental Health Day; the day that social media feeds are filled with posts about people’s experience of poor mental health, photographs of anxiety meds and anti-depressants flood Instagram and Twitter in an effort to normalise these experiences and end the stigma.

This happens every year, and it’s not enough.

Talking is good, I agree with that, but we are talking. I talk regularly about my mental health – I’ve posted about what it was like to be diagnosed with depression whilst doing a PhD and that post has been read by hundreds of people, and I’m very open with friends and colleagues about the fact that sometimes my brain just doesn’t work how I want it to. I’ve emailed my supervisors and colleagues asking to reschedule meetings because I just couldn’t think properly that day, I’ve convinced my boyfriend to travel to a conference with me because I felt too anxious to go alone. I’ve been there, and I’ve been brutally open and honest about it. I’m not ashamed, I talk about the fact that without my ‘delicious antidepressants’ I might not have got out of bed that day.

I talked to my Doctor. I paid to talk to a counsellor, that didn’t work for me and it wasn’t sustainable (£40 for a 50 minute session). I waited 18 months until I could talk to a counsellor on the NHS, and she told me to think about losing weight, doing some exercise and eating more healthily (she hadn’t asked how much exercise I was doing or what my diet was like).

Talking is not enough.

Talking may work to ‘end the stigma’, but ending the stigma is not enough.
We need action.

Earlier this year I read an article in The Metro that summed up my thoughts pretty well:

Theresa May said last year, ‘We must get over the stigma’. Okay, lip service paid. But then, as part of the same speech, she says it’s ‘wrong for people to assume that the only answer to these issues is about funding’ and that no more money will be available to develop services. It feels like being told: ‘Sorry pal, we know your leg’s broken. We can’t put a cast on it right now (budget cuts), but just know that we’re working to reduce the stigma against users of crutches. Off you go.’”

On this World Mental Health Day, instead of posting on social media, don’t just like and retweet the posts you see about mental ill health, do something about it.

Ask for change:
Petition – Drastically improve funding for Mental Health Services within the UK
Petition – Fund facilities for people who feel suicidal so they always have somewhere to go
Contact your MP
Work to make your workplace more mentally healthy with this 7-step guide
If you are able to, donate to local organisations that are working to keep mental health services and support in place in your community Mental Health Foundation, Mind, Scottish Association for Mental Health, Support in Mind Scotland.

If you are in the UK and you need access to mental health help and support services, please take a look here.


8 Reasons You Should Take Part in a Clinical Trial

I originally wrote this post for the What Culture website when they were first launching the Science section of the website, but I wanted to post it here so that I have it on my own blog too.

Clinical trial participation – probably the easiest way of changing the world.

Clinical trials are a critical part of scientific research; they allow us to make sure new products and devices to manage, prevent, treat or detect disease are beneficial and safe for human use.

Thousands of clinical trials are completed every year spanning hundreds of countries around the world. The results of these trials allow governments to make decisions on health budgets, and doctors to make decisions on which drug or device is best for their patients. Patients can also use the results of clinical trials to make choices about their own healthcare plan. Trials may test drugs or combinations of drugs, surgical procedures or devices, ways to screen patients for diagnosis, and care procedures. Each and every clinical trial requires human participants to take part in the study in order to test these new medicines and procedures, but it’s very difficult to find people to sign up. Trials can be abandoned if enough people don’t sign up to participate, and if that happens then answers to the research question the trial aimed to answer will remain a mystery.

Trials are hugely important to human health and disease; without them we would be unable to move science forward, and ultimately we would be unable to save lives. Why should you be the one to sign up for a trial though, is there any way you can benefit from taking part in a clinical trial? Read on to find out my top 8 reasons to say ‘yes’ to trial participation!

1. It’s a brilliant excuse

Have you had a really busy week at work? Don’t fancy that big night out you’ve got planned and need a decent excuse so your pals will get off your back? They can’t exactly try and twist your arm if you declare you must remain sofa-bound because science said so.

Try, “I’m taking part in a potentially world-changing clinical trial and I must refrain from intense movement (e.g. throwing your usual wild shapes on the dancefloor) and drinking alcohol in excess (e.g. the inevitable 3am jagers you’re known for).”

Other excellent uses for taking part in a trial as an excuse include:

  • Getting out of jobs your partner’s been nagging you about for months (No it’s definitely not ok for you to be doing DIY or unblocking the drains or really anything – much too strenuous)
  • Doing extra stuff outside of work (You can’t possibly stay late, you have a clinic visit to attend)
  • Jury duty (You’re trying to cure cancer and they want you to sit and listen to a minor theft case for 4 days? Nae chance)
2. You can make money!

Each clinical trial is different, and your level of involvement will depend on the type of study, what disease the researcher is working on, and the type of intervention you receive – for example, surgical procedures will take longer than giving you a new type of pill to swallow.

Some trials require very little input from you; you may need to keep a food diary or pop in to see a nurse once every few months. For trials like this where you’re not inconvenienced too much you might get a little treat, a notebook or a few pounds to get yourself a coffee on the way out of the hospital.

For other trials though participants are required to be much more involved; these more intense types of trial can require you to stay in hospital for a few days at a time, attend multiple clinic visits or change the way you live day-to-day. These types of study often pay you a higher sum of money as researchers realise you may need to take time off from work or university. These high paying trials are very popular with unemployed people and students looking to make some extra money.

I will say however, taking part in a trial should not be a decision you take lightly – money is a benefit, not a motivator!

3. You’ll help researchers sleep at night

Trials may test drugs or combinations of drugs, surgical procedures or devices, ways to screen patients for diagnosis, and care procedures. Each and every clinical trial requires human participants to take part in the study in order to test these new medicines and procedures, but it’s very difficult to find people to sign up.

In practical terms, not recruiting enough participants is a Very Bad thing for science. In the very worst cases trials can be abandoned if enough people don’t sign up to participate, and if that happens then answers to the research question the trial aimed to answer will remain a mystery.

Thankfully trial abandonment is rare. In more common cases though, researchers manage to recruit between 60 and 80% of the people they’d hoped to – you’re thinking that’s not so bad, right? It’s not good, that’s for sure; without the target number of participants, the results of a study could actually give us incorrect information. Designing and managing a clinical trial is hard work; there are multiple areas where the study could miss targets and exceed budgets. Recruitment is the most common pitfall; getting you guys involved in their trials is the one thing that keeps researchers awake at night.

Take part in a clinical trial and reduce stress levels of a researcher immeasurably – their families will thank you for it.

4. To find out about your own health

If you’re one of those lucky people who is rarely ill, finding out stuff about your own health can super interesting.

Maybe you’re interested to know what your blood type is; a trial that involves taking a blood sample from participants (a super common thing for trials to ask from their participants) will tell you that, and help advance research at the same time.

Other research can give you more detailed information about your own health. For example trials focussing on genetics often ask to carry out a genetic screen on their participants; this is usually a simple process either using a blood sample or a cheek swab. You could find out if you’re at a high risk of obesity, which could help you turn down that slice of cheesecake you had your eye on for after dinner.

In other cases, trials like this may require more thought before taking part; you could find out you’re more at risk of cancer or neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, all from giving a blood sample to a research study. It’s important to note here that genetic trials often offer counselling as well, finding out you are at risk of a certain disease can come as a shock – but it does allow you to implement lifestyle changes and hopefully reduce your risk over time.
5. To improve our NHS

We have all seen shocking headlines about how stretched the NHS budget is, and how likely it is to be stretched further as the UK population ages. Clinical research gives us the opportunity to make the medicines that are paid for by the NHS, and the healthcare procedures we use, more efficient. If we can learn how to make the NHS more efficient, the budget will go much further; magic!

For example, there are lots of different treatments available for diabetes – a growing problem in our society. Which one of these treatments works best though? Trials can answer that question for us. This doesn’t mean we’d stop giving out every other treatment though; each patient is different and certain drugs may work better for some people than others.

What we’d be able to do as a result of a trial like this, is find out which types of people are more likely to benefit from each treatment. Then we would be able to match people up with treatments that are more likely to work more quickly. By preventing the use of trial and error, patients would benefit as their disease would be under control more quickly, and we’d be cutting out waste to free up funds for areas of the health service – everyone’s a winner.

6. To help others

For those of us who are lucky enough to be in good health, we tend to take it for granted until the day we wake up sick. We then promise ourselves we’ll actively appreciate being well again. If you’re lucky enough to never wake up sick, there’s no doubt that you’ll experience someone close to you being given difficult news about their health. I can assure you that this will bring you swiftly back down to Earth.

As a healthy volunteer, clinical trials can give you the opportunity to help others. Healthy volunteers are often the group of people researchers find most difficult to bring in to their trials, mostly because when we’re healthy the problem of poor health seems like a distant problem that we’ll deal with if and when it happens to us. New drugs are tested in healthy people before people suffering from the target disease, this allows researchers to double check that the drug is safe. Without healthy volunteers trials would not be able to run.

So when someone close to you is unfortunate enough to receive an unwelcome diagnosis, don’t spend your time being angry at the world and frustrated because life just doesn’t seem fair; think about signing up to take part in a trial.

7. To take control of your own health

When people are given the news that they have a potentially life threatening disease they go through a mixture of emotions. In some cases they may feel helpless, they may ask ‘why me?’ and be frustrated over their perceived lack of control. Taking part in a clinical trial offers one option of regaining that control.

Being a trial participant does not guarantee that you’re going to be given a new or experimental treatment though – patients are randomly assigned to groups in a trial, so you may end up in the placebo group. A trial can still benefit you as you will be more closely monitored than you would throughout standard care.

Signing up for a clinical trial is not a decision that should be taken lightly; it’s a big decision to make and something that isn’t right for everyone. For others though, they can feel empowered by being a participant in a trial. 1 in 6 cancer patients takes part in a clinical trial in the UK each year, a figure that’s raised from 1 in 26 a decade ago. When asked why they decided to take part in a trial, the majority responded that they wanted to feel in control of their own healthcare, and a trial gave them that opportunity.

8. To advance science

Science is an industry full of unanswered questions, many of which can be answered by completing a clinical trial.

An example of a clinical trial may involve randomly assigning people to 2 groups; giving one group of people a drug you think might prevent heart disease each day, and giving the other group of people a placebo (in this case something that looks like a the drug but which has no effect). The result of the trial will give you information on whether that drug prevents heart disease or not. Other trials may not use placebos at all; in this example one group of people could be given the test drug, and the other group a drug which we already know prevents heart disease. Trials with this sort of design can prevent waste and help science and medical treatments advance – if the test drug prevented heart disease more effectively we could start using that instead of the one already in use.

Isn’t that cool? You could help to answer a huge and important scientific question, and you don’t even have to work in a lab.

Non-Work Goals: 3 Month Check In

3 months ago I wrote a blog post about setting non-work related goals; something that my PhD supervisor suggested I do in order to combat the post-thesis hand in slump. In doesn’t feel like anywhere near 3 months has passed since I wrote that blog post, but it’s time for a check in.

Goal: Rediscover my love of reading

What I said I was going to do: “Over the next few months I’d like to get to the fiction books I bought from Powell’s City of Books (a selection of the pile shown on the right – I know, I buy too many books) when I was in Portland, and also some books that were released this year (Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy, and Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon).”

What I’ve done: I think this has been the most successful of the goals that I set myself in July, so I’m starting on a high. Since then I’ve read 21 books! I’ve read all three of those that I listed, and a good chunk of the books that I bought in Portland too. Here’s a list of my favourites from those 21 books (if you’re on Goodreads then come be my friend on there too! My profile is here):

  • When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy (4*/5)
  • The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi, translated by Deborah Smith (4*/5)
  • On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (5*/5)
  • Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley (5*/5)
  • Stickle Island by Tim Orchard (4*/5)
  • The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (4*/5) (I listened to this one on audiobook)
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (4*/5)
  • Life Honestly by The Pool (5*/5) (I listened to this one on audiobook)

Goal: Learn how to ride a bicycle

What I said I was going to do: “Now I’ve proven to myself that I can write a whole thesis and actually do a PhD (which I will always argue is more about tenacity than intelligence), I figure it’s time I give the bike thing another shot. Also, I really want a bike with a basket on the front that I can fill with picnic food and gin, and if I can’t ride it then that dream is never going to happen.”

What I’ve done: I DID IT I DID IT I DID IT! This was the goal that I thought I’d struggle with, but I can actually ride a bike!! My lovely boyfriend lent me his bike and then spent a few hours at the park near where we live holding the seat whilst I squealed “I’m going to fall, ahhh I’m going to fall!” Turns out, I did fall pretty spectacularly and then I had to be taught how to fall off a bike… yes, I can write a thesis worthy of a doctorate but when time’s going really fast I completely forger to put my feet on the floor.

Anyway, I’ve got actual real life video evidence for this one, and I don’t care how embarrassing it is because I am 26 years old and I can ride a bicycle!

Goal: Do something new and creative

What I said I was going to do: “A few months ago I bought the ‘How to be a Craftivist’ book by Sarah Corbett (right) after listening to a podcast that she did with Leena Norms, I haven’t yet read the book, but just listening to the podcast gave me tonnes of ideas about how I could use craftivist ideas to spread awareness of scientific concepts. All of those ideas are still in the back of my mind but I haven’t had time to do anything with them, now I do have some time and I think this could be a brilliant little passion project before Christmas. Not sure what the creative project will be just yet – maybe a zine? Not sure.. ”

What I’ve done: This is the goal that I’ve barely made a start on, but given that the other two have gone so well I think that’s ok. In August I bought Joe Biel’s book, How to Make a Zine (photograph to the left taken from Syndicated Zine Reviews), and I’ve had a very quick flick through it, but I haven’t done anything about said zine making challenge yet. I also thought about taking on board some of Sarah Corbett’s ideas on craftivism, but I haven’t got around to reading the How to be a Craftivist book yet. I did order a little craftivism kit from Sarah’s website though, so I think I’ll do that before I start making plans for my own craftivism.

I’m pretty pleased with the status of these goals just 3 months on – in particular I hadn’t realised that I had read so much, so that was a lovely surprise. How have you been doing with striking a work/life balance over the summer months? I feel like during summer it’s easier to strike that balance because it’s sunny and people are making plans to go adventuring after work. It’ll be interesting to see how I do with maintaining this new found balance into the autumn months when the nights get darker and it becomes all too easy to stay sitting in front of my laptop.

Saying No, Nicely

I originally wrote this post in September 2015 when I was just a few months into my PhD, but I wanted to repost it now as it remains relevant. I am lucky that there are still lots of opportunities to get involved in different projects coming my way; I am grateful for them, and excited to see where they take me, but it’s still important to learn where you boundaries are and when to say no.

During your PhD you’ll be given opportunities to get involved with multiple different projects; from attending conferences, training courses and workshops to blogging and volunteering at public engagement events. It’s easy to get caught up in these opportunities and sign up for lots of different tasks – but it’s also important to remember why you’re here. You’re here to do a PhD, to do your own independent research, not to be attending irrelevant events or volunteering too much of your time for writing outside of research.

I think I fell into the trap of PhD FOMO (fear of missing out) initially. I signed up for a lot of training courses and workshops and then found myself wishing I had more time to sit and sort through the questions that remain about my project. I spoke to my supervisor and was assured that this is pretty common at the start of a PhD. You want to make sure you’re super well-equipped to deal with every potential problem you might come up against so training is good, but being honest you’ll never be prepared for every issue you may encounter. It’s also very easy to gravitate to tasks which are less diffuse. In the early stages your project will be a bit vague in parts as you’re still nailing down the specifics of your work; courses and defined tasks are attractive, they’re easy to tick off a ‘to do’ list and they give you a sense of accomplishment.

My supervisor sent me a paper – 13 ways to advance your career by saying ‘no’ nicely, part 1: why to say ‘no’ (nicely), and saying ‘no’ to email. Every PhD student should be given this paper!

Here’s a quote from the paper:
We think how to say ‘no’ is one of the most important skills we can impart to our mentees and younger colleagues. Having to do this for them originally struck us as odd, given that most of them learned the power of the word ‘no’ between the ages of one and two. Then we realized that most of us, having learned to say ‘no’ at an early age, lose this power during years of regimented, authoritarian schooling.

It’s completely true! We’re taught throughout school and university, to take every chance we’re given and to make the most of it. This isn’t bad advice but it can lead us into situations where we’re simply not getting enough of our actual job done; ‘saying ‘yes’ too often and too soon can do more harm than good to your career and to your ability to help others.’

So this week and going forward, I’ll be nicely saying no more often. I’m looking forward to being reunited with my desk and being able to get to grips with my research.

Why You Should Consider Building a Business as a Side Hustle

I’ve been pretty vocal on this blog about the importance of public engagement and science communication, but I’ve also said that I want to stay in academic research long-term – so why did I decide to build a business whilst doing my PhD, and why should you consider it too?

‘I Support Diversity in Science’ enamel pin badge.

My reasons for starting Science On A Postcard were pretty basic – I wanted a creative outlet, and I was frustrated after a stranger in an airport said that I didn’t look like a scientist. Before I’d even boarded my flight home I’d set up Instagram and Etsy pages for Science On A Postcard, and I’d decided I was going to create science-related merchandise that people could use (notebooks, tote bags), wear (pin badges) or send (postcards), to show that they were scientists. The whole point was to normalise science, but looking back on it this little business has actually taught me an awful lot.

Why build a business?

PhD students and people working in academia more widely are often criticised for staying in academia and failing to gain any experience ‘in the real world’. Personally, I think that notion is ridiculous – just because I work at a University doesn’t mean that my job is any more or less difficult or unrealistic than any other. Even so, that criticism is still common, and setting up your own little side hustle is one way to demonstrate that you are more than capable of thinking on your feet, innovating, managing your time and taking a leadership role.

‘I Support Women in Science’ enamel pins.

Not only has my business taught me more than I ever imagined it would, it’s been incredibly rewarding. Do a PhD can be pretty slow at times; data can take a long time to collect and analyse, and you can very easily find yourself slipping into a routine of plodding along pretty slowly. Some people are fine with that, but honestly, I find that to be one of the most difficult parts of the research process – the rewards (i.e. results, papers, conference presentations and collaborations) can be few and far between, and I work best when I am able to thrive off smaller successes that happen more regularly. Science On A Postcard gives me those very small, very frequent rewards – as I write this I have processed 507 orders through the shop, and I do a little squeal of excitement every time I sell something, whether it’s a bulk order or an order for a single postcard.

All of the excitement and learning involved with building a business would not be worth it if I didn’t absolutely love and believe in the products that I’m designing and selling. I’ve talked before about how important it is (for me at least) to have a creative outlet, and having a commitment to that creative outlet – i.e. customers messaging me on Instagram, Twitter and Etsy telling me that they love their products and they are eagerly awaiting new releases – means that I have to switch off from work for hours at a time. During my PhD that was incredibly valuable, because it meant that I was forced to draw, to design and to think creatively about things that were not linked to my research project in the slightest; those hours were significant breaks that I used to manage my stress levels and reduced my anxiety because I still felt like I was being productive.
You don’t need to design and sell products to get that stress relief, you could do anything – freelance writing, teaching, blogging, photography, you could even set up a little baking business! It’s not about making money – you probably won’t have time to invest to grow the business to such a stage that it’s actually making you any real income, at least during the time that you’re studying – it’s about forcing yourself to take time away from your work, giving your brain something else to focus on whilst your research plans take a backseat.

A few words of warning
‘David Attenborough’ enamel pin.

That said, one of the biggest shocks for me was how much work having this tiny tiny little business would be. I’m working full time at the moment, and that means coming home from work to spend an evening packaging and posting orders at least every few days. I’ve also had to get an accountant because I’ll need to pay taxes at the end of the year – something I was entirely naive about before I realised that I very much needed to get my head around that sort of thing (…just a few months ago).
I’ve noticed patterns in how busy I am which helps me to manage my time and get organised, but it’s still all on me – I design the products, find suppliers, figure out how much stock I can afford/will sell and then place orders, photograph, price and list my products on Etsy, advertising and marketing (hey follow the shop on Instagram and Twitter for updates!), and then sorting out packaging and postage so that customers get their orders in pristine condition. Even then, there’s lots of customer service involved if/when the postal services screws up and orders are lost or delayed!

I realise that a lot of what I’m saying comes from a position of privilege – I am lucky in that my PhD was funded, so I didn’t have to pay fees and I received a tax-free stipend that allowed me to pay rent, buy food and have an ok social life. Setting up a business is not for everyone, but if you are in a position that allows you to do something like that and you’re not sure whether to go for it, I would very much recommend that you do.

Wait, You’re Still Not a Dr?

This post is inspired by my friend and fellow science blogger, Soph Arthur from Soph Talks Science; earlier this week she wrote a blog post about handing in her PhD thesis (huge congrats, Soph!), and why she hasn’t made the jump to Dr Arthur yet. I thought her post was a brilliant way to explain the process of PhD examinations and awards – handing in the thesis is often seen as the final step before gaining your PhD, but there’s actually quite a lot more to go after that.

I handed my thesis in at the end of June, and had my viva at the end of August. The viva is an oral examination (usually face to face) that is designed to push you to your limits, to check that you did the work contained in your thesis, and to have some discussion around what you might have done differently and why. Mine had 2 examiners – 1 external (someone from outside my University), and 1 internal (someone that’s based at my University), and it last an hour and a half. At the end of those 90 minutes I was asked to leave the room, and 5/10 minutes later I was called back in to be told that I’d passed with minor corrections. That’s a pretty common result. At the University of Aberdeen ‘minor corrections’ means that you have 3 months to make the changes requested by the examiners, and only after that can you apply to graduate.

So it’s currently the beginning of October, and I’m STILL not a Dr.


Post-viva, pre-corrections.

Anyway, that’s entirely my own fault. I completely avoided the thesis until last week; I just didn’t want to make the corrections, I didn’t want to read what I’d written for what felt like the millionth time, I just wanted to continue being super proud of myself for getting to this point and passing the viva. Unfortunately though, if I don’t make the corrections and get my ass into gear, then I will never be Dr Gardner.

After a very helpful catch up with my supervisors, I began tackling the corrections earlier this week, and I’m on track to finish them by the start of next week. I will finish them, and I will send my (hopefully final) thesis to my supervisors so they can have a quick look over it before I send it back to my examiners. Hopefully they will be happy with it, and I can then start getting excited for graduation – if I get things in order and turned around quickly I should be able to graduate on Friday 23rd November.

If I get my act together, that means I’ll be able to call myself Dr Gardner in about a month and a half. No pressure.

What Is Blinding (Or Masking), and Why Is It So Important?

Hoorah! Blogtober day 4, and the resurrection of my Clinical Trials Q&A series.
This is a series where I answer questions about all things trials – this is the third post in this series, previous posts have looked at the first clinical trial, and why you might choose to do a trial in favour of using other study designs (this post explains the concept of randomisation, I’d recommend reading that one if you’re not sure what randomisation is – it’ll help this one make more sense).

This post looks at a concept that’s crucial to the success of trials – blinding.

What is blinding?

Blinding, also referred to as masking, refers to “the concealment of group allocation from one or more individuals involved in the research study“. In practice, that means that if you’re taking part in a trial, you will not know what treatment arm you have been allocated to. Often, your doctor or healthcare professional will not know either.

There are various different types of bias:

Table taken from the European Patients’ Academy

Why is blinding so important?

Blinding serves to avoid bias. Sources of bias can come from participants, clinical staff and/or the trial team that’s interpreting the results.

This is not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. We’re all human, and it’s human nature to be influenced by the things that we know or believe – if we don’t know them then we can’t exert our own biases. Think about it, if you have a headache and you take a pill that says it will make your head feel better, when you do feel better you are likely to attribute it to the actions of that pill. In actual fact your headache might have just lifted of its own accord, but you’re much more likely to believe it was a result of the pill.

This idea translates to clinical trials too – if you take part in a trial that’s aiming to find the best tablets to treat a headache and you are told that you have been allocated a headache-stopping pill, you’re more likely to report that your headaches have reduced since you started taking the pill. If you don’t know what the pill is (maybe it’s a sugar pill that has no medical ability at all, maybe it contains a drug that research think will cure headaches), then you are more likely to report the truth of whether your head is still hurting or not. We are swayed by the information that we have, particularly if that information has the potential to make us feel well or unwell.

Blinding is not only important for participants; clinicians, researchers and the people analysing the trial data can also be influenced by the knowledge of which group a participant has been allocated to. If the person recruiting participants into a trial, or treating people within that trial, knows which group their participants are allocated to, their behaviour may change. These changes are often subtle and completely subconscious, but they could influence the way that the participant views the treatment and therefore influence the results of the trial.

Blinding isn’t always possible

In an ideal world every study would be triple blind – participants, clinicians and researchers would all be blind to the treatment that the participant has been allocated to. The world isn’t ideal though, and lots of the trials that are going on involve complex interventions (i.e. not something as simple as a tablet that you can easily duplicate the look and feel of to ensure allocation remains concealed). Some trials are only able to run if they are single blinded, or completely unblinded- surgical trials for example. Innovative trial designs and techniques are often incorporated in an effort to overcome potential bias in these situations.

Blinding isn’t just important in clinical trials involving humans, lab research involving anything from mice to individual cells can be blinded too! I know that lots of people reading this are involved in laboratory research – if that is you, and you are not currently using blinding to avoid bias in your studies, head to the CAMARADES website.
CAMARADES (Collaborative Approach to Meta-Analysis and Review of Animal Data from Experimental Studies) aims to provide an easily accessible source of methodological support, mentoring, guidance, educational materials and practical assistance to those wishing to embark on systematic review and meta-analysis of data from in vivo studies; that includes providing help and support with things like blinding and randomisation. This resource is a brilliant starting point. If you’re not using techniques like blinding and randomisation in you’re research, you’re not alone. This article from The Scientist earlier this year (original publication here) suggests that more than 95 percent of the preclinical work cited by 109 clinical trial proposals lacked the hallmarks of best practices, such as randomization or blinding. It’s time to change this.