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During the COVID-19 pandemic, research organizations accelerated adoption of technologies that enable remote participation. Now, there’s a pressing need to evaluate current decentralization practices and develop appropriate research, education, and operations infrastructure. The purpose of this study was to examine current adoption of decentralization technologies in a sample of clinical research studies conducted by academic research organizations (AROs).
The setting was three data coordinating centers in the U.S. These centers initiated coordination of 44 clinical research studies during or after 2020, with national recruitment and enrollment, and entailing coordination between one and one hundred sites. We determined the decentralization technologies used in these studies.
We obtained data for 44/44 (100%) trials coordinated by the three centers. Three technologies have been adopted across nearly all studies (98–100%): eIRB, eSource, and Clinical Trial Management Systems. Commonly used technologies included e-Signature (32/44, 73%), Online Payments Portals (26/44, 59%), ePROs (23/44, 53%), Interactive Response Technology (22/44, 50%), Telemedicine (19/44, 43%), and eConsent (18/44, 41%). Wearables (7/44,16%) and Online Recruitment Portals (5/44,11%) were less common. Rarely utilized technologies included Direct-to-Patient Portals (1/44, 2%) and Home Health Nurse Portals (1/44, 2%).
All studies incorporated some type of decentralization technology, with more extensive adoption than found in previous research. However, adoption may be strongly influenced by institution-specific IT and informatics infrastructure and support. There are inherent needs, responsibilities, and challenges when incorporating decentralization technology into a research study, and AROs must ensure that infrastructure and informatics staff are adequate.
New technologies and disruptions related to Coronavirus disease-2019 have led to expansion of decentralized approaches to clinical trials. Remote tools and methods hold promise for increasing trial efficiency and reducing burdens and barriers by facilitating participation outside of traditional clinical settings and taking studies directly to participants. The Trial Innovation Network, established in 2016 by the National Center for Advancing Clinical and Translational Science to address critical roadblocks in clinical research and accelerate the translational research process, has consulted on over 400 research study proposals to date. Its recommendations for decentralized approaches have included eConsent, participant-informed study design, remote intervention, study task reminders, social media recruitment, and return of results for participants. Some clinical trial elements have worked well when decentralized, while others, including remote recruitment and patient monitoring, need further refinement and assessment to determine their value. Partially decentralized, or “hybrid” trials, offer a first step to optimizing remote methods. Decentralized processes demonstrate potential to improve urban-rural diversity, but their impact on inclusion of racially and ethnically marginalized populations requires further study. To optimize inclusive participation in decentralized clinical trials, efforts must be made to build trust among marginalized communities, and to ensure access to remote technology.
One challenge for multisite clinical trials is ensuring that the conditions of an informative trial are incorporated into all aspects of trial planning and execution. The multicenter model can provide the potential for a more informative environment, but it can also place a trial at risk of becoming uninformative due to lack of rigor, quality control, or effective recruitment, resulting in premature discontinuation and/or non-publication. Key factors that support informativeness are having the right team and resources during study planning and implementation and adequate funding to support performance activities. This communication draws on the experience of the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) Trial Innovation Network (TIN) to develop approaches for enhancing the informativeness of clinical trials. We distilled this information into three principles: (1) assemble a diverse team, (2) leverage existing processes and systems, and (3) carefully consider budgets and contracts. The TIN, comprised of NCATS, three Trial Innovation Centers, a Recruitment Innovation Center, and 60+ CTSA Program hubs, provides resources to investigators who are proposing multicenter collaborations. In addition to sharing principles that support the informativeness of clinical trials, we highlight TIN-developed resources relevant for multicenter trial initiation and conduct.
The Trial Innovation Network has established an infrastructure for single IRB review in response to federal policies. The Network’s single IRB (sIRBs) have successfully supported over 70 multisite studies via more than 800 reliance arrangements. This has generated several lessons learned that can benefit the national clinical research enterprise, as we work to improve the conduct of clinical trials. These lessons include distinguishing the roles of the single IRB from institutional Human Research Protections programs, establishing a consistent sIRB review model, standardizing collection of local context and supplemental, study-specific information, and educating and empowering lead study teams to support their sites.
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the development and implementation of hundreds of clinical trials across the USA. The Trial Innovation Network (TIN), funded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, was an established clinical research network that pivoted to respond to the pandemic.
The TIN’s three Trial Innovation Centers, Recruitment Innovation Center, and 66 Clinical and Translational Science Award Hub institutions, collaborated to adapt to the pandemic’s rapidly changing landscape, playing central roles in the planning and execution of pivotal studies addressing COVID-19. Our objective was to summarize the results of these collaborations and lessons learned.
The TIN provided 29 COVID-related consults between March 2020 and December 2020, including 6 trial participation expressions of interest and 8 community engagement studios from the Recruitment Innovation Center. Key lessons learned from these experiences include the benefits of leveraging an established infrastructure, innovations surrounding remote research activities, data harmonization and central safety reviews, and early community engagement and involvement.
Our experience highlighted the benefits and challenges of a multi-institutional approach to clinical research during a pandemic.
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