By Dr. Agnes M. Costello
April is National Minority Health Month, which gives me an opportunity to think about how I can help to reduce health disparities and improve the health of Asian Americans. We must first recognize and acknowledge that there are fundamental differences in various aspects of health between Asian Americans and other racial and ethnic groups. These health differences are closely linked to our genes, social, economic, and environmental factors. Are you aware that Asians may response to certain medications differently than Caucasians? Did you know that most of the medications used in cancer or heart diseases were studied in patients who were not Asians?
For the next series of blogs, I would like raise awareness of health issues that disproportionately affect Asians and how we can work together to understand and address these issues.
My Personal Journey
When I was a teenager, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. She was offered the opportunity to participate in a clinical study to see if taking a new treatment would prevent the cancer from returning. There was a lot of miscommunications and lack of understanding, so she ultimately decided not to participate because she did not want to be a “laboratory rat”.
I often wonder, if my mother participated in the clinical study and provided valuable information to the researchers, perhaps my Chinese relatives with colon cancer could have had better treatment options tailored for their disease and had better outcomes.
As a clinical researcher, I rarely encounter Asians participating in clinical studies. This is concerning to me as new drugs are approved without a representation of Asian minority. You may ask why does this matter.
Due to differences in genetics and other factors, people may experience the same disease differently. The same treatment that works for others may not work well or work safely in everyone. Clinical studies should include people with a variety of race and ethnicity, age, sex, and other factors so that all communities benefit from scientific advances.
In a recent study that looked at racial and ethnic representation in clinical studies in the United States, Asian Americans were found to be underrepresented in clinical studies compared with national census figures.
Why do Asians not participate in clinical trials? I don’t have the answers, but I suspect that is due to many factors including a lack of understanding of the potential benefits and the risks due to language and cultural barriers.
My mother’s concerns were valid, but the researcher failed to provide her with the right information and unable to answer her questions, in Cantonese. She was not aware of the potential benefits of participating in a clinical study such as:
As with everything in life, there are potential risks in participating in a clinical study. But researchers are obligated by law and bound by ethics committee to ensure that study participants are protected from harm and risks are minimized.
As the spring season starts, think about new opportunities to improve your health and to help others. If you are offered the chance to participate in a clinical study, don’t just walk away! We need to ensure that Asians are represented in clinical studies so that we know that these new therapies will work safely and effectively for all of us.
You can find more information about clinical trial here or speak with your doctor:
National Institute on Minority of Health and Health Disparity
National Institute of Health: Why should I participate in a clinical trial?