By J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP
We have made incredible progress treating cancer over the past several years through the application of innovative science from the bench to bedside, as well as in clinical trials. However, the reality remains that clinical trial participation in the United States remains woefully inadequate in the cancer space, and the COVID-19 pandemic has done nothing to improve that fact over the past year.
How can we make the clinical trial process more efficient and effective and enable new treatments to get to the patients who need them more quickly? The answer may lie in some of the adaptations that have occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Take Advantage Of Growing Consumer Acceptance Of Technology
The hope today is that we can learn from the lessons of the past, work with new technologies, have a better understanding of the needs and expectations of our patients, and find ways to ease participation in clinical trials going forward.
It is time for us to embrace technology, in particular artificial intelligence and machine learning, to move the clinical trial enterprise forward, making access and accrual more responsive and more effective than ever before. Specifically, digital health platforms can serve as the great equalizer needed to increase accessibility. As a centralized source of information, technology has no limitations – it can meet the needs of patients no matter where they are in the world, how much money they make, or the stage of their cancer journey. Technology is such a powerful tool that, if implemented correctly, can serve to benefit both patients and clinicians alike. As industry leaders, we must seize this opportunity to seek out the available knowledge, implement the proper governance on how to utilize this technology to empower users, and adapt as much as we can in order to get ahead of the learning curve.
We must take advantage of the fact that, especially over the past year, consumers are becoming much more comfortable with technology. With pandemic-induced stay-at-home orders making in-person medical care virtually impossible to obtain, patients have had to adapt. They have had to become their own health advocates. As a result, they have become activated patients.
We need activated patients and families to widen participation in trials. By definition, the role of an activated patient is one who seeks out information in order to determine the best course of action for their own healthcare. This concept has largely evolved over time, with the rise of technology and, specifically, widespread adoption of the Internet, granting access to knowledge that was previously unreachable without the aid of a dedicated clinician.
Finding the right trial for the right person has always been a difficult task. The resources that have been widely available remain difficult for even the most sophisticated patient or family member to filter and comprehend. On the other hand, social media and the Internet have made cancer information more accessible than ever before, and consumers are responding to the new possibilities of engaging in their own medical care. Patients and their caregivers are more willing to seek information and take action online.
Clinical trial information should be no different. Patients should be able to find the most relevant trials for their diagnosis in their time of need. Then, they should be able to determine whether, in fact, they are eligible to participate in a trial. Until now, that has been difficult. Today, we have solutions in place that can fill that need, including the use of advanced technology, which has provided life-changing progress.
Moving forward, the role of activated patients will become a key element in the healthcare ecosystem. In an environment where people have become more comfortable and confident in seeking information as opposed to solely receiving it, boundaries will continue to expand, and patients will become more internally reflective of valid information as a result. While this evolution of patient empowerment is here to stay, it does not fully eliminate the need for medical experts but rather, allows both parties to work cohesively together.
Learn From The Pandemic
We find ourselves in a place today where we have incredible opportunities – including scientific developments for treatments that can improve the survival and quality of life for patients who, even a few years ago, may have had a dismal outlook. These opportunities not only make clinical trials more effective and efficient but also help to reach people where they are located and offer them a trial that brings with it the hope of a better outcome.
Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. It is part of a clinical trial universe that could serve much better.
As clinical trial and pharmaceutical professionals, we must take a careful look at the past pandemic year’s lessons and the changes in patients’ expectations to be certain that they have access to all of the understandable information they need to help inform and guide their decisions (and the resources they need to make that participation a reality). If we can achieve that goal, we will move cancer care’s rapidly progressing science forward quickly. If we fail, we will miss opportunities and have far more tragedies than necessary.
We have the technologies to improve clinical trial participation and advance cancer treatment. Now is the time to engage and promote those technologies to make that participation a reality.
About The Author:
J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP, is a medical oncologist, the former deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, and current advisor for TrialJectory.