A presidential commission yesterday proposed a $2 million federal program to find out how many people are injured in medical research projects and whether they should be compensated.
The Department of Health and Human Services should finance a three-to-five-year study at several medical centers, said the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research.
Alexander Capron, the commission's executive director, contended that HHS now has no figures on how many people are used in such experiments, let alone how many are hurt.
What evidence has been gathered indicates that small numbers of human research subjects are harmed. At the University of Washington in Seattle, which is among the few with a formal compensation system, 144 subjects out of 356,000 used in eight years of studies reported disabilities, not counting minor problems such as headaches that didn't require treatment.
The largest claim the university has had to pay was $10,000 for an infection caused by contaminated equipment.
Capron said there seem to be fewer inadvertent injuries in research than in medical practice, but commission Chairman Morris B. Abram said that if one person is hurt "there is an ethical problem."
Commission members saw a probable need for compensation for two kinds of biomedical research: "non-therapeutic research," studies not intended to help the subject, and "therapeutic research," studies intended to benefit a patient.
In the second group, the commission said, a compensation system would likely cover only injuries caused by extra actions required by the research, and not injuries caused by medical treatment.
In a drug-treatment experiment, for example, there might be no compensation if the drug had some unforeseen ill effect, but there could be compensation if the injury was caused by a spinal tap the research demanded.
The government today requires only that research centers getting federal funds inform subjects of the risks and whether compensation is provided in case of injury.