The COVID-19 pandemic put clinical trials in the spotlight as researchers worked to develop a vaccine. Many people were not familiar with clinical trials, but they are not new. They have been used for hundreds of years, and the research advances made as a result are integral to testing and approving new cancer treatment strategies.
Defining Cancer Clinical Trials
A clinical trial is a research study that tests a new medical approach. Most cancer treatments used today were once therapies or procedures that were developed, tested and evaluated through the clinical trials process to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Many types of cancer clinical trials exist. Some evaluate new methods for improving different areas of cancer care, including disease prevention, patient screening, diagnostic tools and procedures, genetic risk factors, and lifestyle or behavioral changes that may improve health and/or quality of life (having fewer or more manageable side effects, for example). This includes testing drugs and non-medication therapies, such as radiation therapy, surgery, medical devices and other interventions. Trials may also evaluate patient-reported outcomes, which are important to improving the quality of patient care.
The Rise of Telehealth
When the country shut down in spring 2020, many cancer clinical trials were halted for patient safety. Scientists and researchers had to find new, efficient and safe ways of conducting clinical trials. Telehealth was key to continuing them during the pandemic, and many researchers think these changes are here to stay.
Telehealth is the delivery of health care from a distance using electronic information and technology such as computers, cameras, video conferencing, the internet, satellite and wireless communications. You may also hear a telehealth appointment referred to as a “virtual appointment.”
The use of telehealth for clinical trials has offered patients many advantages, including the following:
- Allowing more patients to participate in trials from even greater distances.
- The convenience of remaining at home.
- Reducing travel for people who live far from the medical office, which eliminates transportation costs.
- Helping limit potential exposure to infections in clinics and hospitals.
- Offering an easy way to report symptoms or complications between follow-up visits.
- Allowing caregivers and family members to ask questions during virtual visits.
- Reducing disruption to a patient’s daily life.
- Giving participants the ability to sign the Informed Consent form electronically, avoiding a special trip into a medical facility.
The conveniences of telehealth have brought new possibilities to cancer clinical trials and their participants. These include making trials more flexible, faster, simpler, less expensive and more equitable. Other benefits to participants include the following:
- Investigational drugs may be mailed overnight.
- Wearable technologies will help doctors remotely monitor blood pressure and temperature information, which provides valuable input to the principal investigator of the trial.
- Pharmacists may be more directly involved with clinical trial participants.
- The increased use of digital tools, such as mobile apps, patients portals and electronic health records, simplifies and collects information.
- Patients have more access to specialists including dietitians, psychologists, and other health professionals.
- There is greater potential for more volunteers to participate in clinical trials because they will not have to be located near the center.
Other changes and conveniences are likely to be seen as clinical trials continue to evolve. These offer clinical trial volunteers fewer barriers to participate and make joining one less disruptive to your life.
If you are interested in joining a clinical trial, talk to your doctor and discuss all of the options available to you.