Clinical research is changing. No longer the sole preserve of clinicians and researchers, the Internet and new digital technologies are reinventing the way in which patients take part in the clinical trials process.
In the past decade there has been a revolution in how patients access health information. The Internet is increasingly the first port of call on our health-seeking journey. According to Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life data, one in three U.S. adults have gone online to figure out a medical condition; 34% of Internet users have read someone else’s commentary or experience about health or medical issues on an online news group, website, or blog; and 18% of Internet users have gone online to find others who might have health concerns similar to theirs.
“Clinical research” is among the most-searched terms on the Internet; yet every year hundreds of trials are delayed or abandoned because they can’t recruit enough patients. Poor rates of trial recruitment are a major obstacle to the successful and efficient completion of clinical trials. Insufficient recruitment of study participants may result in losing the statistical power of a predictive conclusion, as well as prolonging the time it takes to get the trial drug to market. Oncology trials in particular are failing to meet enrollment goals, with most delays in conducting trials stemming from recruitment. 85 percent of cancer patients don’t know trials are an option. 55 percent of clinical oncology sites fail to get a single patient because they simply can’t find them and one third of trials fail to recruit a single patient1.
Given that enrollment into a clinical trial is frequently the best treatment option for patients with cancer, how might we make more patients aware of the benefits of clinical trials? Combining the power of new technologies with social networking and patient activation is our best chance at galvanizing the process of patient recruitment, and perhaps even an opportunity for us to completely reinvent the process of clinical research itself.
The world-wide web has opened a window to the world of clinical research. With the click of a mouse, we can now access information on the latest trials, download medical information to our portable devices, connect with researchers in real-time, and find other patients with the same condition. Dedicated websites such as the U.S government’s ClinicalTrials.gov site, and the World Health Organization’s International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP), help patients easily find information on clinical trials. The launch of these sites represented a paradigm shift in clinical research; information that had once been closely guarded is now available to all. Some other note-worthy websites include The Center for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation (CISCRP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and informing the public about clinical research; and clinical trial recruitment sites, such as ClinicalConnection, TrialReach, EmergingMed and CureLauncher which exist to match eligible patients to appropriate trials. A new digital platform Cure Forward uses a patient’s uploaded genetic sequencing to connect cancer patients to clinical trials. The site, which is currently in beta, also offers cancer patients more information on the mutations and treatments available in “gene stories” specific to their genome.
Mobile applications can be downloaded from the Apple and Google Play Stores to give patients real-time access to current information about cancer clinical trials. This is opening up opportunities for better medical treatment and care, and allows those in regional and remote areas equal access to clinical trial information. Some sites, such as the Novartis Clinical Trials website provide users with an interactive tool for finding relevant trials taking place near their location. A GPS search function allows users to see all the trials taking place in their country by location. For those looking further afield, the Novartis site features a global search function that displays clinical trials taking place in any country.
Popular social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are being used, alongside dedicated social media patient communities, to raise awareness and encourage wider participation in clinical research. The TrialX site encourages patients to send a tweet to @trialX, preceeded by “CT” describing the type of clinical trials they are seeking. Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation’s Army of Women Program (AOW) taps into the power of its social networks to mobilize research into the causes of breast cancer.
“The word Army, which means a large group of people united for a specific purpose, quickly and clearly describes who we are. The image of us all joining in a virtual Army to get this done is a powerful one” – Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation.
The traditional methods of advertising clinical trials through print media, brochures or poster displays, meant geographic limitations narrowed the pool of potential recruits. Using popular social networking sites, researchers can now accelerate the recruitment process by extending their social reach to take in a global pool of potential recruits. According to US hospital group, Mayo Clinic, social media is especially effective at recruiting patients for its studies into rare diseases. Social media and online networks could help researchers assemble large and demographically diverse patient groups more quickly and inexpensively than traditional outreach methods. “Patients with rare diseases tend to find one another and connect because they are searching for information and support,” says Mayo Clinic’s Marysia Tweet, M.D. “Studies of rare diseases often are underfunded, and people with these conditions are quite motivated.”
One such motivated patient is Katherine Leon, an SCAD (spontaneous coronary artery dissection) survivor, who was determined to find the cause of her disease, and prevent it from happening to others. At the time of her diagnosis, SCAD, a traumatic cardiac event that affects fewer than 200,000 Americans, was a poorly understood and under-researched condition. Physicians had no clinical studies on which to base treatment plans. Leon connected with fellow SCAD survivors through social media and used their collective voice to launch research at the Mayo Clinic. The study recruited 18 participants in less than a week, six more than could participate in the initial study of 12 patients. This rapid enrollment of participants through social networking served as proof of concept for future research studies to harness the power of highly-motivated patient communities. Leon credits social media as a key research accelerant. “Social media absolutely gets the credit for making scientific study of SCAD possible” she says. “In 2003, my cardiologist told me I would never meet another SCAD patient. It was just too rare. Today, I “know” more than 1,000 fellow survivors thanks to Inspire, Facebook and Google. These patients are connected to the clinical trials immediately — at hello!”
Harnessing this dynamic combination of new digital and mobile platforms, social media, and activated patients offers an unprecedented opportunity for patients and researchers to find each other with greater speed and precision, which in turn can speed up the process of recruitment to clinical trials.
The ability to engage interactively through social media further enhances the benefits to patients. Reading information in a brochure doesn’t compare to the ability to interact and ask questions in a social networking site. What is it really like to take part in a clinical trial? Would you need to travel? Will it incur any personal expenses? What kind of side-effects might you have? Trial sponsors can respond in real-time to these questions, thus speeding up the recruitment process. In addition, patients already enrolled on the trial, can provide personal insight into what is involved. One patient, who has participated in two Phase 1 clinical trials, said that he was motivated to sign up for them, by reading others’ stories online. Hearing about the experiences of others who had participated and “come out the other side” encouraged him to take part.
Sometimes there can be an open sense of distrust about the nature of clinical trials – a fear on the part of some that they will be treated as a “guinea pig”. For patients who may be wary of research agendas (particularly when pharma-led) peer-to-peer education is a vital ingredient in building trust and confidence in clinical trials. Patient advocate, Stacey Tinianov believes “there is great value in patients and caregivers leveraging the connected platforms to educate themselves on the benefits and realities of clinical trials. Learning patient to patient is often more accessible for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a certain trust”.
Moreover, social networking has the potential to empower patients and care-givers with a greater sense of control. All too often, patients who face serious illness can feel isolated and powerless; joining an online community can help enormously. By exchanging coping tips, offering encouragement and support, and sharing information on the latest clinical research, patients feel a greater sense of agency. Breast cancer survivor Diane Glassmeyer, took part in a Sierra-Stanford study of the effectiveness of support groups conducted via online video. The randomized clinical trial was designed to help researchers determine whether this type of video-mediated support group improves the well-being and quality of life of breast cancer patients who live in rural areas. Glassmeyer described the Skype Support Group as “an amazing experience to be able to see and talk to everyone in the group each week from all over the state”.
The role of the care-giver must not be overlooked in peer-to-peer support. Half of health information searches within the U.S. are on behalf of someone else. In the case of late stage oncology, or a paediatric trial, the caregiver’s involvement is imperative. We need to focus more on establishing communication and maintaining an on-going relationship, not just with the study participant, but with all involved in care-giving for the patient. Patient advocate, Andrea Borondy Kitts, a care-giver for her husband with lung cancer, says: “For the patient (my husband did not go on-line but I did) it was great to have technical help and sharing of latest research. I found out about Lucanix on the Inspire website and pursued it. When I needed to help my oncologist with the process of getting FDA approval for individual patient compassionate use, one of the Inspire members had the whole process documented and shared it with me”.
When Borondy Kitts’ husband was considering a clinical trial, she was able to get information from people with lung cancer about their experience, including side effects, with an experimental drug. “When my husband had horrible side effects to his supposedly gentle chemo in Phase 3 clinical trial, (Alimta /Pemetrexed), I found out from social media that many others had similar experiences and I also got tips on how to manage the side effects. My oncologist did not have enough patients in the trial to have observed these effects”.
ePatient Reported Outcomes
Capturing Patient Reported Outcomes electronically (ePRO) through the web or mobile devices, offers a way to interact with trial participants, while also capturing critical data. Although patients for the most part face little or no restrictions on reporting their outcomes via social networking sites, there are some concerns about how this might affect the trial’s validity. Patients self-reporting on their trial treatment online and comparing notes with others may potentially jeopardize the trial. The exchange of personal experiences whilst enrollled in clinical trials can lead to patients (or any researchers on the same social network) to inadvertently “unblind”* themselves, leading to knowledge of treatment allocation. Concealment is crucial for unbiased reporting of results, and disclosures by one patient might unintentionally distort another patient’s awareness of their own symptoms, potentially skewing data reporting and potentially invalidating study results. The intersection of free speech, social media, and clinical research is still unchartered waters. Borondy Kitts, believes that while guidelines can be implemented to safeguard data integrity in a blinded trial, “for unblinded trials there should be very few limits on what can be shared.”
Patients Are Doing It For Themselves
The communication process which traditionally flowed from pharmaceutical companies to physicians to patients has been transformed by social media. Patients, who have traditionally relied on their doctors for information about the latest clinical research, are now realizing that information may be more readily found in their online patient communities. After she progressed following chemotherapy and radiation, Janet Freeman-Daily, a lung cancer survivor, took it upon herself to do her own research.
*A blinded study is a study done in such a way that the patients or subjects do not know (is blinded as to) what treatment they are receiving to ensure that the results are not affected by a placebo effect (the power of suggestion).
She found a molecular testing trial listed on ClinicalTrials.gov, and contacted trial sites until she found one accepting patients. The University of Colorado Cancer Center (UCCC) agreed to test her existing biopsy samples. Unfortunately, all her tests were negative. However, she learned about more options online. “Another patient told me I fit the profile of patients who had the ROS1 translocation,” said Freeman-Daily. “I was relatively young, had adenocarcinoma, was never a smoker, and tested negative for the three most common mutations. He told me about the ROS1 trial, which he was in, and sent me the journal article with initial results as soon as it was published. However, my home hospital had not heard of ROS1, and did not know how to test for it.” After she progressed following more chemo and radiation, Freeman-Daily contacted UCCC again and learned they had recently developed a test for ROS1. This time her tissue tested positive, and she entered the ROS1 clinical trial in Denver.
Kathi Kolb describes the process of searching for a clinical trial after her diagnosis of cancer: “I searched the database of the National Cancer Institute and found a Phase 2 clinical trial to test a new medication to treat cancer-related fatigue in people with breast or prostate cancer. I had been doing a lot of research on the subject because I was suffering from horrible fatigue myself. Once I found a trial that fit and was close enough for me to get to, I followed the links provided and researched the cancer treatment center where it was taking place, as well as the clinicians in charge of the study. I was able to make initial contact with them by email. It was a really good experience overall.”
Janet Freeman-Daily, Kathi Kolb, Andrea Borondy Kitts, and Katherine Leon are part of a growing number of ePatients, empowered by the Internet and emerging new technologies, who are leveraging their online communities to drive and support the research agenda. From providing input into study design protocol, to raising awareness of the value of clinical trials and recruiting trial volunteers, patient influencers play a key role in accelerating the new research paradigm. AnneMarie Ciccarella, a patient advocate who serves on the Love Foundation Army of Women (AOW) Scientific Advisory Committee, believes patients have a valuable role to play in trial design. “The thing that interests me the most is trial design and having patients part of that process” she said. “Some grants require a patient advocate on the proposal. In some cases they are actively involved in the study design; in others, the researchers scramble to find an advocate before the submission deadline. I’ve participated as an advocate on a funded grant, possibly at the top of the list of things that mean the most to me. It’s about bringing patients and PIs [Principle Investigators] to the table when the questions are being formulated – a step ahead of actual trial design”.
The Future Is Social
Ciccarella also serves on the advisory board of CureClick, an online platform which uses the power of crowdsourcing to share clinical trial information. As part of a group of key patient leaders, she helps recruit trial participant across all diseases. This new model of leveraging trusted patient leaders to educate their online communities about the benefits of clinical trials can do much to improve trial recruitment goals. CureClick ambassador Debbie Woodbury, explaining why she joined its advisory board, said: “I started working with CureClick early this year and serve on its advisory board because I feel that too often cancer patients find themselves in the curious situation of having too much, and too little, information. Many patients I’ve spoken to are overwhelmed with treatment decisions, and yet receive little to no information concerning clinical trials. The beauty of CureClick is the ease with which plain language information is shared peer to peer on social media, resulting in greater participation. It’s a win-win for everyone and I’m proud to be a part of it”.
The need for a faster and more globally scalable approach to trial recruitment, planning and design, is clear. To address challenges such as public awareness and understanding of clinical trials, increased competition for patients and decreased effectiveness of traditional advertising, requires new solutions. Social media are a key part of the solution. Social media offers patients greater accessibility and convenience of communication and information. For researchers, social media offers a unique opportunity for innovative trial recruitment modalities, increased efficiency and accelerated research outcomes. People are social creatures by nature; harnessing our innate desire for connection, to new information, social and technology platforms is the best chance we have to drive the next generation of research forward.
Malorye A. Can web 2.0 reboot clinical trials? Nature Biotechnology 27, 895 – 902 (2009).
A Stanford Medicine X e-Patient scholar, Marie Ennis O’Connor is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and consultant on global trends in patient engagement, digital health and participatory medicine. A board member of the Patient Empowerment Foundation, a network of people, foundations, organizations and medical institutions dedicated to empowering patients worldwide, Marie’s work is informed by her passion for embedding the patient voice at the heart of healthcare values. She writes about the experience of transitioning from breast cancer patient to advocate on her award-winning blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.