Being a lab rat: what could go wrong?
Being a lab rat: what could go wrong?

Do you have trouble sleeping? Are you a heavy smoker over 21? If you’ve ever struggled to pay rent, you’ve probably given human guinea pigging more than a passing thought. Medical researchers are always on the hunt for test subjects, and they pay from $15 (filling out a survey) to several thousand (participating in a lengthy sleep study). The general rule is the same as it is in everyday life: the more you risk, the better the reward. Since there are lots of people with healthy bodies and unhealthy bank accounts, here’s a rough “how-to” guide for anyone looking to get into experiments.

Step 1: Find a Study
Start with a quick look at the government-sponsored Clinical Trials website. In addition to listing all federally funded and privately financed clinical trials around the world (almost 103,000, according to the site), the NIH-run site offers an exhaustive breakdown of clinical procedures, safety regulations, oversight boards, sponsorship disclosure and all sorts of other useful pieces of information.

The information on Clinical Trials can be a bit overwhelming, though. Two alternatives are Guinea Pigs Get Paid and BioTrax.  Guinea Pigs Get Paid, which also advertises mystery shopping and film extra work, is a user-friendly site that lists pretty much everything that Clinical Trials misses, but beware of dead links. BioTrax, the UK equivalent of Clinical Trials allows you to test your experiment eligibility and then sends you updates when studies become available.

Step 2: Know the Risks and Rewards
Once you’ve found a suitable study, you should know what you’re getting into. Here’s a breakdown of procedures and pay rates along with my own inconvenience rating (0 = No Pain, Easy Money, 5 = Life is Meaningless, Poke Away).

MRI: A typical MRI pays $50, along with the completion of a one-day screening and interview, which pays $75. MRIs are not particularly invasive – the procedure is quick and painless – but sitting around in an office for most of the day may be kind of annoying.
Inconvenience Level: 1
Total Payout: $125/MRI and screener

PET: PET scans — a type of nuclear imaging — pay around $600. Again, all PET scans involve a one-day screening and interview (which pays $75). The bad news: the high rate of pay comes at a cost of convenience. In order to get a PET scan, you need to ingest (or get injected with) a radiotracer, wait an hour for the radiotracer to be absorbed, then have the procedure. Some scans involve a catheter, too, which can be a major turn-off. Overall, though, this is an easy way to make good money. Unfortunately, procedures involving PET scans are harder to find.
Inconvenience Level: 3
Total Payout: $675/PET and screener

Medical Questionnaires: Online questionnaires typically pay $15/form. Medical surveys are usually part of non-invasive observational studies (i.e. cognitive performance studies) that don’t pay much, so consider the paid questionnaire a small token of appreciation. Or think of it this way: one medical survey gets you a vodka soda at the Bunker Club in the Meatpacking District or a case of the best cheap beer around. Saturday night never seemed so glamorous.
Inconvenience Level: 0
Total Payout: $15/form

 

Plasma Donation: Although it’s not technically a procedure used in clinical trials, plasma donation deserves a mention. Most plasma donations pay $20-$30/visit, and visits last between 1.5 and 3 hours. The benefits: free cookies at the end; the chance to help out your fellow man; and you can do it twice a week for as long as you can stomach it.  The drawbacks: lots of needles, moderate discomfort.
Inconvenience Level: 3
Total Payout: $20-$30/donation

Sleep Studies: Think you’re ready for the big time?  Then try this one out: sleep studies pay between $175 (for a one-night stay) and $3,000 (for a 14-day study). Too good to be true? The benefits: lots of cash, the chance to find out why you have trouble sleeping (i.e. excessive drinking), the chance to get away from your annoying roommates for a few nights. The drawbacks: slightly invasive cognitive tests, huge time commitment.
Inconvenience Level: 4-5
Total Payout: $175-$200/night

Step 3: Get Paid
So, you’ve allowed scientists to poke and prod, but when can you expect cash? The good news is that most large clinics pay you on the final day of the experiment, or within two weeks at most. The bad news is that some clinics won’t pay you anything if you don’t complete the study, so read your safety wavers carefully.

Generally speaking, there are no legal restrictions on the number of tests you can undergo at a single time, but good judgment dictates that you keep the experiments within reason. There are people who make their living off of medical experiments, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve lost the will to live. Test in moderation and you’ll make science work for you, and maybe even help some researcher find a miracle drug while you’re at it.

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