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Virtual Clinical Trials: Changing Perceptions

Last century, the internet was new and consumers were skeptical about handing over their credit card details to an online retailer. Two decades later, e-commerce transactions have become second nature to all of us. Most people prefer to shop online, and a near majority of millennials are even using voice assistants to make their purchases. Many of us couldn’t imagine it any other way and wouldn’t want to. This is the way we like it now. Our perception has changed. 

E-commerce fulfilled its promise to change the way we do business so thoroughly it’s hard to remember why anyone ever hesitated to embrace it. Payment processors and encryption have laid rest the fears of identity theft and fraud. Some experts predicted a “retail apocalypse”, others characterized the whole internet as a fad. But the e-commerce industry grows stronger and faster every day as if totally uninhibited by anything, from the spectacularly wrong to the merely slow to adopt.  

It is true that brick and mortar chains have been left behind. It was also inevitable. Technology is not neutral. It’s trans-formative. Once that first click was made, a veritable arms race began, and the marketplace continues to innovate, with various models for product recommendations and subscription services, deliveries made by drones or fulfilled by employees of an emerging “On Demand Economy”. While at least grocery chains haven’t gone anywhere, not everyone shops for groceries the old-fashioned way anymore. There are new roles to play in society and we are no longer reluctant but rather we are eager to forge ahead. 

Virtual Clinical Trials are the next horizon on the medical research frontier. Virtual Clinical Trials will be to research what e-commerce was to retail, a natural progression. The benefits are self-evident. All the cost savings resulting from remote operations management and the reduction of infrastructure make it likewise inevitable, at some point. Can anyone say it won’t happen? The question is when. There are challenges to overcome and risks for early adopters as always, but all in all, there’s no more heavy lifting. E-commerce has already paved the way. The public has already been reoriented to be receptive.  

All the incentives are there. The convenience of collecting and submitting data from the comfort of your home, the prospect of being rewarded for your time and effort, results at your fingertips, who wouldn’t be thrilled? Fewer than 10% of conventional clinical trials reward participants for their time and effort, and when they do they are rarely a match for the burden that participants go through. Naturally patient enrollment and retention are by far the biggest issues.Without any real incentives, clinical trials are seen as more of a hassle than they are worth. But with the advent of Virtual Clinical Trials, a public already inclined to shop online will readily redefine how they view medical research, as active participants in it. Far from a hassle it would become a side hustle, a source of passive income. Imagine, participation in clinical research could come to be viewed as a civic duty. What would be your excuse not to do your part? 

Another likely objection is data privacy. Nobody likes being spied on. Nobody ever asked to have a large corporation track and sell your browsing history in order to send targeted pop-up ads your way. That’s a nuisance we’ve come to put up with while browsing the web. But what if you could get in on the action? Would you change your tune? Many of us would. The technologies of Electronic Health Records and blockchain encryption used in Virtual Clinical Trials flip this arrangement on its head. The sharing of your health data, by you as your choice and under your control, would change the whole landscape. Instead of hiding behind proxies and ad-blockers, you might prune your health profile the way you prune your social media profile. It could be a way to create value rather than a way to be exploited. The implications of a marketplace where participants willingly and knowingly share their medical records are so profound they could reshape our view of all data tracking. 

Brick and mortar chains didn’t disappear overnight, and neither will clinical research sites, nor should they. But neither should we allow clinical research to lumber along like something out of the Jurassic era. A transition to new paradigm is taking place whether we like it or not. The relationship between patient and researcher is dramatically different in virtual clinical trials. Instead of brick and mortar research sites, there is a technology-enabled centralized site and study team. The studies themselves can be said to be decentralized, taking the trial directly to the patient. This familiar “hub and spoke” model allows for great speed and flexibility. We can think of virtualization as a way of offloading the burdens of the conventional system.  

Because patients and researchers can be located anywhere, a whole host of roles are needed to ensure smooth and secure communication between people and platforms. Digital coordinators and digital recruitment specialists must adapt new duties from their traditional on-site counterparts. Troubleshooting services may be expected at all hours. New roles such as”patient guide” and “connected device expert” will emerge. Arrangements must be made for any supplied equipment. There will be a lot more devices to be calibrated. Clinical data security experts will be in demand.

Not all research is suited to a virtual environment. There are obvious feasibility issues. Measurements that can only be taken by trained professionals or where large expensive machinery is required, will be out of reach for the time being. But what does the future hold? The advantages of virtual clinical trials are bound to spur development and lead to hybridized approaches, maybe “pickup” rather than “delivery”. Who knows where human ingenuity will lead. 

Virtual Clinical Trials bring biomedical research into the 21st century where it belongs with the rest of us. It’s long overdue and once we get there, we’ll wonder why it took so long. If you don’t want to wait any longer click here.