“The Future Is Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed.”

Too often, healthcare outcomes on the ground level feel like a roll of the dice – there seems to be very little certainty about what’s going to happen, despite clinicians’ efforts to explain treatment options and patients’ attempts to understand what’s happening in the treatment process. The endless drumbeat of “scientific breakthrough” headlines of varying accuracy, or even veracity, adds even more of a casino-odds vibe to the experience of dealing with a challenging diagnosis like cancer or Parkinson’s.

The title of this post is an apocryphal quote attributed to cyberpunk writer William Gibson (his Twitter handle is @GreatDismal, and he’s definitely worth a follow) – it’s an aphorism I find myself using almost daily at this point, particularly when I’m participating in conversations, either in person or digital, about emerging trends in clinical research, clinical trials, and health system innovation. There are strong indications that healthcare, and the science that underpins it, is moving in a direction that will deliver up the “faster cures” that everyone affected by challenging or life-threatening conditions is anxiously awaiting.

Some of the signal I’m picking up comes from the scientific community itself, with organizations like Cochrane working to make science more accessible, and accurately reported, for everyone. Cochrane runs a rigorous systematic review process on clinical research studies and trials reporting, and has built a Consumer Network and a public-facing platform called Cochrane Crowd where anyone can become a citizen scientist (there’s a training program!) and then jump in to help assess and review clinical studies. I wrote an overview of Cochrane last year after attending the 2018 Cochrane Colloquium annual meeting in Edinburgh last September, which you can read here for a full 411 on all things Cochrane.

Another signal source for emerging indications of “future is here” is the increasing number of journal articles talking about making public engagement in research, and in healthcare system redesign and innovation, an actual thing vs. a “nice to have” or a box to check on a list from the marketing department. A recent example on that one is “Public engagement can fight against health inequalities—but only if we do it right” by Imran Khan, Head of Public Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, in The BMJ. Another example is a one day conference I attended recently, put together by the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative (CTTI) and the US FDA, “Enhancing the Incorporation of Patient Perspectives in Clinical Trials.” I attend a lot of scientific and policy conferences and events, where I usually find myself grinding my teeth at the still-evident paternalism and “we’ve always done it this way” thinking that threads through medical science and health policymaking.

The CTTI/FDA event didn’t get my jaw clenched (much) – there were patients with lived experience and expertise on each panel at the event, with Donna Cryer, a lawyer and liver disease expert/advocate/activist, giving the opening keynote. Life sciences companies like Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Takeda had representation, too, and all spoke clearly about the need for people/patients to be in on creating clinical trial protocol design that includes data release to study participants, and better research questions developed with patient input. On the revolutionary-thinking “future is here” front, there’s even an emerging idea of establishing clinical trial participant benefit trusts, where people who participate in drug trials are beneficiaries of trust funds established with stock options for drugs that are approved, and go to market. I’ll give you three guesses on who stepped up to the microphone in the Q&A session to talk about that idea [spoiler: yes, it was me].

My point is that the future is here, and it will be as evenly distributed as you, I, and the rest of the community at large – the public! – work to spread it around. The distribution network is us. Join Cochrane Consumer Network, start participating on Cochrane Crowd, spread the word on clinical trials that can benefit your community, and encourage your community to reach out to researchers at local universities and medical centers to offer to help design and launch clinical studies and trials that matter to the community itself. Citizen science isn’t just an idea, it’s jet fuel to get us to the future, faster.