What is Health Research?


Health research is an investigation of a human health issue to learn more about it. It is usually funded by the government, private foundations, and/or drug companies with the hope that the new information will be useful to patients, the community, and other researchers.

What are types of health research?

There are different types of health research:

Behavioral research looks at how people and groups act or behave in different ways. Examples include:

  • Answering questions about your experience with an illness
  • Taking part in a focus group to talk about a new way to improve health

Clinical research, also known as clinical trials, focuses on finding and testing new medicines (drugs), medical devices, or other medical treatments. Examples include:

  • Developing a new test for breast cancer
  • Comparing two medications (drugs) to treat heart disease to see which one works better
  • Developing lenses to help people see more clearly after eye surgery

Genetic research looks at the role of genes in different diseases and health conditions. Examples include:

  • The discovery of the BRCA gene mutation as a risk factor for breast cancer
  • Developing medications or treatments based on a person’s genes (this is also known as precision medicine)

Public health research focuses on the prevention and treatment of illness and disease in a community or population. Examples include:

  • Developing a media campaign to encourage people to eat healthy
  • Understanding how the flu spreads in a community

A research registry is a collection of information about individuals. Many registries collect information about people who have a specific disease or condition, while others seek participants of varying health status who may be willing to participate in research about a particular disease. Individuals voluntarily provide information about themselves to these registries. Registries can be sponsored by a government agency, nonprofit organization, health care facility, or private company. By joining a research registry, you agree to be contacted about participating in future research studies.

How is health research overseen at Columbia University?

Columbia University is one of the top research institutions in the world. Thousands of studies are conducted by the university's faculty and research staff each year. Much of this research has led to important results that help us lead healthier and better lives.

Research in which people will be asked to participate cannot begin until it has been approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). An IRB is a group of people which often includes doctors, social workers, nurses, scientists, and people from the local community. They all work together to make sure that human research is well planned and ethical.

The IRB decides, when approving studies, that it is reasonable to ask people whether they want to be involved. Both before and during the research study, the IRB serves to protect the rights and welfare of research participants. It makes sure that any risks in the research study are as small as possible. The IRB also reviews each study while it is going on to make sure volunteers continue to be protected. Visit the Columbia University Human Research Protection Office to learn more about IRBs.

Why volunteer for a study?

People have many different reasons for volunteering for a research study:

  • Help find a cure for an illness
  • Help find ways to provide better care for sick people
  • Benefit their community by being included in important health research
  • Help gather information about how people think and behave
  • Help discover more about how the body and mind work together

Is there a difference between research in adults and children?

It is important that children, as well as adults, be involved in research so that scientists can understand more about the health and behavior of children. There are specific laws and rules that apply to all research that involves children to protect them from harm. Children under 18 years of age cannot agree to participate in research for themselves and need to have their parents and/or guardians give permission for them to participate in research.

If you are a parent and/or guardian who is thinking about having your child involved in research we encourage you to talk with the researchers and to ask them as many questions as you may have about a study you are considering for your child.

How do I pick a research study and what questions should I ask the researcher?

When deciding if a research study is for you, carefully look over the study’s informed consent form with the researcher. The informed consent form describes the purpose of the study, what you will be asked to do as a research participant, how long the research will last, what are the risks and benefits of participating in the research, and how your personal information will be protected.

Before agreeing to participate in a research study, you may consider asking:

  • What could happen to me, good and bad, if I take part in the research?
  • What other choices do I have if I decide not to be in this study?
  • If I decide to take part, how will this affect my daily life?
  • How long will this study last?
  • What will happen if I change my mind and want to leave the study?
  • Who will find out that I am taking part in this study?
  • What will happen to my personal (private) information?
  • Will I be told the results of the study?
  • If I have any questions, whom should I call?
  • Who will pay for any costs related to the study?
  • Will I be charged anything or paid to be in this study?

If participating in clinical research, you may want to ask:

  • What tests or procedures will be done?
  • If I am injured because I am in a study, who will pay the costs that may result?
  • Who will be in charge of my care? Will I be able to continue to see my own doctor?
  • Is it possible that I will receive a placebo?
  • Could my condition get worse during the study? What will happen if it does?

How can I learn more?

Contact the Columbia Community Partnership for Health to learn more about participating in research. You can contact us by phone or in person:

Columbia Community Partnership for Health
390 Fort Washington Avenue, Ground Floor
New York, NY 10033

Visit NIH Clinical Trials and You to find out more about clinical research.

How can I participate?

Visit our research registries and studies page to learn how to join a registry or study.