A new article by researchers from the NIH Collaboratory, published online this week in the journal Clinical Trials, explores some of the challenges facing physicians, scientists, and patient groups who are working to develop innovative methods for performing clinical trials. In the article, authors Monique Anderson, MD, Robert Califf, MD, and Jeremy Sugarman, MD, MPH, MA, describe and summarize discussions from a Collaboratory workshop on ethical and regulatory issues relating to pragmatic cluster-randomized trials.
Pragmatic Cluster-Randomized Trials
Many of the clinical trials that evaluate the safety and effectiveness of new therapies do so by assigning individual volunteers to receive either an experimental treatment or a comparator, such as an existing alternative treatment, or a placebo. However, this process can be complex, expensive, and slow to yield results. Further, because these studies often take place in specialized research settings and involve patients who have been carefully screened, there are concerns that the results gathered from such trials may not be fully applicable to “real-world” patient populations.
For these reasons, some researchers, patients, and patient advocacy groups are interested in exploring different methods for conducting clinical trials, including designs known as pragmatic cluster-randomized trials, or CRTs. In a pragmatic CRT, groups of individuals (such as a clinic, hospital, or even an entire health system) are randomly assigned to receive one of two or more interventions being compared, with a focus on answering questions about therapies in the setting of actual clinical practice—the “pragmatic” part of “pragmatic CRT.”
Pragmatic CRTs have the potential to answer important questions quickly and less expensively, especially in an era in which patient data can be accessed directly from electronic health records. Just as importantly, that knowledge can then be fed back to support a “learning healthcare system” that is constantly improving in its approach to patient care. However, while cluster-randomized trials are not themselves new, their widespread use in patient-care settings raises a number of potential challenges.
For example: in a typical individually randomized clinical trial, patients are enrolled in a study only after first providing written informed consent. However, in a CRT, the entire hospital may be assigned to provide a given therapy. In such a situation, how should informed consent be handled? How should patients be notified that research is taking place, and that they may be part of it? Will they be able to “opt out” of the research? What will happen to the data collected during their treatment? And what do federal regulations governing clinical trials have to say about this? These are just a few of the questions raised by the use of pragmatic CRTs in patient-care settings.
The NIH Collaboratory Workshop on Pragmatic Cluster-Randomized Trials
The NIH Collaboratory Workshop of Pragmatic CRTs, held in Bethesda, Maryland in July of 2103, convened a panel of experts in clinical trials, research ethics, and regulatory issues to outline the challenges associated with conducting pragmatic CRTs and to explore ways for better understanding and overcoming them. Over the course of the intensive 1-day workshop, conference participants identified key areas for focused attention. These included issues relating to informed consent, patient privacy, oversight of research activities, insuring the integrity of data gathered during pragmatic CRTs, and special protections for vulnerable patient populations. The article by Anderson and colleagues provides a distillation of discussions that took place at the workshop, as well as noting possible directions for further work.
In the coming months and years, the NIH Collaboratory and its partners, including the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network (PCORnet), plan to build on this workshop experience. Together, they hope to explore these issues in greater detail and propose practical steps for moving forward with innovative clinical research methods, while at the same time maintaining robust protections for patients’ rights and well-being.
Jonathan McCall, MS, and Karen Staman, MS, contributed to this post.
Read the full text of the article here:
Anderson ML, Califf RM, Sugarman J. Ethical and regulatory issues of pragmatic cluster randomized trials in contemporary health systems. Clin Trials 2015 [e-Pub ahead of press].
For further reading:
Tunis SR, Stryer DB, Clancy CM. Practical clinical trials: Increasing the value of clinical research decision making in clinical and health policy. JAMA 2003;290(12):1624-32. PMID:14506122; doi:10.1001/jama.290.12.1624.
The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute Ethical Issues in Cluster Randomized Trials Wiki.
Special Report: Ethical Oversight of Learning Health Systems. Hastings Center Report 2013;43(s1):S2–S44, Si–Sii.
Sugarman J, Califf RM. Ethics and regulatory complexities for pragmatic clinical trials. JAMA 2014;311(23):2381-2. PMID: 24810723; doi: 10.1001/jama.2014.4164.