Growing Number of Mothers Participating in Clinical Trials to Make Ends Meet

Know the potential risks before signing up.

November 21, 2011, 1:23 PM

Nov. 21, 2011 — -- Yvette Santana, a 37-year-old mother of four who was diagnosed with diabetes, is one of a growing number of mothers who participate in clinical trials to make extra money.

Before she started participating in studies five years ago, despite working two jobs, Santana could not always afford to buy an $80-box of glucose test strips to monitor her diabetes. She would sacrifice her health to pay bills and buy groceries for her family.

"It gets very hard. You have to see what's more important, your kids and their needs or your own. And as a mother, it's always your kids," said Santana.

But participating in clinical trials provide her with insulin, health check-ups, and free strips. Santana says now she's stable and healthier than she's ever been.

Jennifer Martinez, a 33-year-old mother of four, is not struggling as much to make ends meet. She lives in a two-story brick home in an upscale community. Both she and her husband participate in studies to make extra money, which they use to go to Hawaii once a year.

Martinez started participating in studies when she was 23 so she wouldn't have to put her children in day care.

"It was really just to be able to stay at home with my kids," Martinez said. "I did one study and thought, 'Okay, that's like a lot of money in a short amount of time.' So I started to kind of pick it up and do a little bit more."

Martinez surfs the web several times a day to find study announcements. She looks for "not crazy studies" – taking medications they don't affect her heart or her brain and have only minor "over-the-counter symptoms" like nausea. She says she's never had a side effect.

"I think I'm probably pickier than most people on which [studies] I do," she said.

Martinez makes an average of $7,000 a year participating in studies, but has made up to $13,000 in one year. She does about three studies a year, but if she has a big bill to pay or Christmas is coming up, she'll do an extra one.

Her advice to other moms? It's tough to get accepted for studies. You have to be diligent and respond to announcements quickly.

One company Martinez works for is Clinical Trials Texas. Kay Scroggins, the president and CEO of CTT, founded the company out of her home in 2001 with one study.

The company pays all volunteers a $40 to $100 stipend per visit for their travel and time. The stipend depends on what kind of procedure the study entails.

Scroggins says these studies have "changed a lot" over the last 10-15 years.

"The qualification criteria to be in the study are much more complex and so in the industry we talk about the squeezing the funnel so to speak because you start with a large population and as you go through the criteria one after the other you start eliminating people. And so you come down with a very small group of people that would actually qualify for this study."

About 10 percent of the patients involved in the studies are healthy, according to Scroggins, and all others have pre-existing conditions.

"Throughout the study we want [volunteers] to be truthful with us about their [medical history]…any kind of adverse events they may have, any medications they are taking, so honesty is a huge part of it," said Scroggins.

When doing preliminary testing on volunteers, the company has found several cases of breast cancer, hepatitis and HIV.

"They would not have found that if they would not have been in a study," said Scroggins. "A lot of our patients will come in and be very depressed and be put on a medication that they may not have been able to have access to otherwise and seen a big improvement where they're back working. They can interact with their families again."

What You Should Know Before Participating in a Clinical Trial

Dr. Arthur Caplan, the director of the Penn Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, says that clinical trials are usually safe, but there are some risks you should be aware of.

"There are risks that something could go wrong, but it depends on what you're doing and what degree of research is involved. The more they're paying you, the more your radar should go up. They're paying you more because there's more risk or more pain involved."

Caplan also warns that if something goes wrong, your insurance company often will not cover it.

"You have to read the fine print. The company may say that those costs will be covered by your insurance company. I'm here to tell you they won't. Your insurance company will not pay for any injuries you get serving as a subject in a trial you signed up for."

Caplan says he can see why participating in studies is attractive, especially to people who don't have medical insurance, but he says you can't kid yourself. "Don't think that being seen by clinical trial technicians is a substitute for health care. At the end of the day, these companies are trying to deliver data to the pharmaceutical companies. They are not your doctors."