In this installment of our series on how the clinical trials industry is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, I spoke with Dr. Suzanne Rose, Director of the Office of Research at Stamford Health. Stamford Health consists of Stamford Hospital, Stamford Health Medical Group, Stamford Hospital Foundation, and a diverse and growing number of retail and ambulatory locations across Connecticut.
Stamford Hospital served the hardest hit county in Connecticut during the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the need, it was a challenge initially to get COVID trials for the site. “We pounded the pavement right away and what was frustrating for us as a site is that it felt like we were late to the punch every single time,” says Dr. Rose. Pharmaceutical companies were focusing on large hospitals as the sites for their initial trials and many community hospitals were getting overlooked, despite their heavy caseloads. The competition for COVID trials surprised Dr. Rose, at first. As a result, she built a strategy for how to keep her team active and her site competitive in this rapidly changing industry landscape.
Use Resources Wisely
The first decision Dr. Rose had to make was what to do with her staff when the initial wave of the pandemic hit and sponsors paused many of their ongoing trials. “I felt like we had a choice. I could have said everyone go home,” says Dr. Rose. But instead of doing that, she refocused her team. “We had two coordinators who 100% focused on keeping our oncology trials moving forward and the rest of the team was pivoted to focus on COVID research. They were writing protocols, making sure from a regulatory standpoint we were 100% compliant, and collecting data.” This allowed her to keep her staff engaged and available as the pandemic evolved.
Have Multiple Irons in the Fire
Given the tumultuous nature of clinical trials at the moment and for the foreseeable future, Dr. Rose suggests having as many different projects in the works as possible. Having the bulk of her team solely focused on COVID research during the initial weeks of the pandemic paid dividends, as the team was able to ramp up multiple trials to serve their patients due to their hard work and persistence.
They aren’t ignoring their non-COVID trials either. As the initial pandemic wave has receded, Dr. Rose’s team is looking at how they can best position themselves for non-COVID research. This includes re-assessing and re-prioritizing the trials they already had in flight. “Let’s start pre-screening for the trials we were doing really well with before,” shares Dr. Rose. “Let’s look at bringing those back on board and speaking to our sponsor partners when we know it’s a safe environment for our research participants to come back into the hospital or to physician offices.” This proactive approach is giving her more options to be adaptable and prioritize the projects she feels will be most successful for the team and institution.
Don’t Lose Sight of the People
With all the change happening in the industry right now, Dr. Rose encourages sites to not lose sight on the most important piece – the patients.
“The biggest change we’ll see in the industry is a lot of what we do in person is going to be changed,” says Dr. Rose. She’s concerned that if sites aren’t careful, the push towards telemedicine will affect the deep relationships staff and physicians build with patients during a trial, which could hurt engagement. “We have such a close connection with some of our patients,” says Dr. Rose. “We have oncology patients who have been with us for 20 years. … It becomes like a family and any time you have a patient on a trial for more than a few months you just develop a relationship with that participant. It increases their retention because they feel like part of fixing the problem or fighting a terrible disease, so I definitely worry that we’ll start to lose that touch with our research participants.”
This will also be crucial as regular medical procedures ramp back up and physicians cope with a backlog of patients that have been neglecting their own medical care during the pandemic. “We have to be sensitive to the fact that our physician offices will be operating on a slower schedule as well,” says Dr. Rose. “We have to work with the administration on when is an okay time for us to get back to clinical research based on the fact that there are probably a lot of sick patients out there who are going to take priority over our research participants who are voluntarily deciding to be in a clinical trial.” These logistical constraints could push trial timelines back by an additional month or two, but are crucial to the larger picture of patient care and community health.
Dr. Rose’s biggest advice for sites right now is to find ways to stay essential. “I would encourage other sites to look for ways to be relevant at all times,” says Dr. Rose. “Whether that’s finding trials that you know you can do really well that aren’t COVID related or if it’s finding COVID trials that you can be involved in. There are hundreds and hundreds of trials coming out … and it might not be a trial that necessarily brings in a lot of funding, but if it’s a way to stay relevant and to keep your team active, I think that is the best advice that I can give.”
Focus on What Makes It All Worth It
Despite the challenges, Dr. Rose stays focused on the power of the work her team is doing. She and her team had worked really hard to get a clinical trial for convalescent plasma up and running at the hospital. The first COVID patient they enrolled had been on a ventilator for three weeks. The family had been advised to make funeral arrangements. Within a few days of receiving the plasma, the patient began recovering.
“He was dosed on a Friday and the very next Friday he was extubated and that made it all worth it. There was not a dry eye in the place. This man was at death’s door and everybody knew it, so everyone was cheering … I’ll never forget that moment. Ever. That’s what keeps us going.”
I appreciate Dr. Rose sharing her experience and insights with me. In the coming weeks, we’ll have more installments of our series, sharing a wide variety of perspectives from industry experts on how the clinical trials landscape is responding to and evolving from COVID-19. Join our newsletter to receive future installments of this series. If there is a question you’d like answered in our series or you’d like to be featured in a future installment, please email me. Stay well.
About the Author: Emily Hossellman
Emily Hossellman is the vice president of marketing at Deep 6 AI, which uses AI and NLP to allow clinical researchers to find patients that fit any set of complex criteria in real time. Emily partners with Deep 6’s customers and other industry experts to share their success stories on how they’re using technology to conduct innovative clinical research. Emily has spent her career in cutting-edge technology, working with consumer electronics, IoT, smart building, and artificial intelligence products. She’s a frequent writer and speaker on the disruption, transformation, and opportunity afforded by new technology.