Conference Coverage

Expert: Engage patients, clinicians as partners in research



– Not all researchers are clinicians, but what if all clinicians were researchers? Clinical studies would yield more relevant data, resulting in better patient care, according to an expert.

“The clinical research enterprise is broken,” Andrew A. Nierenberg, MD, said during a keynote plenary session dedicated to serving diverse populations, at a meeting of the American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology, formerly known as the New Clinical Drug Evaluation Unit meeting. “It’s a problem, because it really does not have an impact on the actual care we give, and it doesn’t answer the types of questions that patients care about.”

One persistent problem, Dr. Nierenberg said, is that often those who enroll in trials have unclear motives for doing so, but those motives usually are tied to incentives such as cash. “Who goes into these trials and why is absolutely critical to the signal,” he said.

Dr. Andrew Nierenberg of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston

Dr. Andrew Nierenberg

Questionable intent is compounded by inadequate or nonexistent explanations to study participants about the researchers’ reasons for the trial, and no clear justification for why the participants should adhere to the protocols. This leads to medications often not being taken as directed, and poor attendance at follow-up points and psychosocial visits. The result overall, he said, is that clinical research amounts to symptomatic volunteers who are strangers to the investigator “doing weird things in places where they have never been before and [not really understanding] why they are doing them.” In practical terms, this means that the amount of evidence-based medicine practiced across the specialties is low – only about 15%, said Dr. Nierenberg, who cited a study that pinned blame for the “fragmented ‘nonsystem’ of [clinical research] on a lack of common goals, vision, and collaboration” (JAMA. 2009;301[8]:831-41).

The best solution would be integrating the clinical and the research enterprises into a single system – where patients and clinicians alike are engaged in the research process, he said.

“Transform clinicians into partners and collaborators. Engage them up front to help recruit, not just for your study but for all studies,” said Dr. Nierenberg, the incumbent holder of the Thomas P. Hackett, MD Endowed Chair in Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “If someone comes in [seeking treatment], they can opt out of doing research, but the assumption is that they will collaborate and that we will expect them to collaborate.”

In his own work, Dr. Nierenberg helps run the MoodNetwork, a growing, nationwide database of patient-reported outcomes for those with mood disorders that he said is dedicated to filling knowledge gaps around those illnesses not easily gleaned from clinical response data alone. “Patients know what it is like to live with their illness more than we do,” said Dr. Nierenberg, also director of the Dauten Family Center for Bipolar Treatment Innovation in Boston.

The data from the MoodNetwork also feed into a nationwide network of databases run by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute network, originally created as part of the Affordable Care Act, and which, at least for now, Dr. Nierenberg said, appears safe from repeal. The network recently received $28 million to help create the necessary infrastructure for connecting research and clinical databases – including the electronic health records – from a variety of health institutions nationwide. “Most of you have your EHRs embedded into those networks even if you don’t know it,” Dr. Nierenberg said.

PCORInet’s resulting uber-database currently has patient-reported data on more than 122 million people. All of the data are queryable and available for use for virtually any study a clinical researcher or clinician would like to conduct into any aspect of any clinical specialty.

In his clinical practice, Dr. Nierenberg said, he is able to solicit patients in MoodNetwork studies by appealing to them as partners and collaborators from the moment they present in the clinic. He and his colleagues ensure that patients understand the importance of their participation not just to them as sufferers of an illness, but to the care of millions of others. Key to working together as partners is to use plain language when explaining treatment and research goals. It also is important to survey patients and listen to them when they share their experience of trials and treatment.

“We tend to suffer from the curse of knowledge,” Dr. Nierenberg said, referring to the amount of technical jargon that often separates study participants from researchers. “We are so embedded in our world; we can’t imagine not understanding it. It’s a failure to communicate, and it happens over and over again.”

Dr. Nierenberg’s talk generated buzz days after he gave it. During the meeting’s final regulatory plenary session, ASCP President Mark H. Rapaport, MD, chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta, invited Dr. Nierenberg to help clarify for Food and Drug Administration officials and attendees alike the extent to which point-of-care research could avoid numerous pitfalls, including expectation bias and an outsized placebo effect – two drawbacks that researchers typically avoid by purposefully not interacting with patients.

The way around those confounders, Dr. Nierenberg said, is to begin communicating with patients as soon as they enter the clinic. Randomize those who are seeking care from those who are willing to participate in research for a time-limited duration, and emphasize that there is continuity before and after the research with the same clinician providing the clinical care. “Be very explicit in saying to them that: ‘The study might affect your care and the care of others in the future, but that it is just as important to the study if you don’t respond as if you do [respond].’ ”

To avoid rater bias, he suggested blinding raters as to which clinicians gathered the data on which patients.

Incentivizing clinicians to change their work flows to accommodate becoming researchers requires seeing them as equals. As the current system of research is now, Dr. Nierenberg said, “clinicians get pushed aside.” Instead, he suggested, meet clinicians’ desires for access to the data to help care for their patients, or CMEs, and webinars – all resources and tools he said were possible to achieve with dashboards built into the information networks.

Dr. Nierenberg talked about the importance of teaching patients how to be collaborators, such as by having them respond to practice questions, asking whether they understand what is being asked of them, and presenting them with videos about what to expect.

Conversely, the patient can teach the researcher how to be a better collaborator. During the regulatory plenary session, Dr. Rapaport called upon David Sheehan, MD, a distinguished university health professor emeritus at University of South Florida in Tampa, now in private practice. His Sheehan Suicidality Tracking Scale was validated in a study that described the scale as having “excellent accuracy for suicidal ideation” (J Clin Psychiatry. 2015 Dec;76[12]:1676-82).

Dr. David Sheehan, professor emeritus at University of South Florida in Tampa, now in private practice.

Dr. David Sheehan

Throughout his career, Dr. Sheehan said, he has asked his patients to arrive early to their appointments to answer questions on scales of his own creation. He then reviews them with the patient in each visit and asks for their feedback. “Honestly, they gave me the best advice ...” Dr. Sheehan said. “It’s the way they phrase the questions that I would never would have thought up. They would say to me, ‘We would understand [the questions] if you put them this way, but if you don’t change the wording, a whole cohort of your patients will give you the wrong kind of answer.’ With decades of input like that, I realized it was the best way to go.”

Dr. Nierenberg described an alchemy of sorts that occurs when the power differential between the holder of the learned knowledge (the researcher) and the holder of experiential knowledge (the patient) is bridged. “What happens to your attitude when you’re working with a ‘collaborator’ compared to when you are working with a ‘patient’? You feel it, but you’re unaware of the bias. But if you think of them as your partners, and tell them that they are, you find they shift. They own it. It’s an authentic engagement over time.”

Ultimately, better research will lead to better patient care, he said.

Dr. Nierenberg had no relevant disclosures.

On Twitter @whitneymcknight

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