Historical Overview

1. Introduction

Medicine, like other health and social sciences, is not an exact science. For example, ‘established treatments’ might not be suitable for some patients, might not work well for others and some patients simply cannot access them.

This means that research is important, because:
  • Established treatments need to be monitored and evaluated to find out when they are effective, i.e. when they work well.

  • We are always looking for new treatments.

  • medicine is ‘experimental’, i.e. we learn as we go by using new ideas and techniques.

  • New diseases and conditions emerge and we need to find out how to treat them.
Research is critical in improving health. Over the past century, there has been great progress in scientific and medical research. This includes the development of many new medicines, devices and techniques such as surgical, transplant and transfusion procedures. The field of health research has expanded tremendously in the past half century in terms of both:

  • Financial investment - more money is put into health research.

  • Diversity - more and more areas are considered and studied, including:
    • the factors that might affect health in defined populations (epidemiology),
    • genes (genetics),
    • humans and social behaviour (anthropology and sociology),
    • the factors that might affect access to health care (health systems research).
We have expanded our knowledge however gaps do remain. The knowledge and tools available are not always adequate to tackle existing health problems. There is a constant need to generate new information and develop improved and more effective ways of protecting and promoting health and reducing disease. Further advances in these areas require research involving human participants.

Research ethics aims to promote high standards of behaviour in the conduct of research involving humans. It does this through an awareness of relevant values, principles and rules.