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Research Network Pairs a Wide Range of Patients With Clinical Trials That Fall Short on Enrollment, Diversity

November 05, 2020

By Julie Gould 

melissa opraseuthMelissa Opraseuth, PharmD, explains why clinical trialing of medicines and vaccines often falls short on enrollment and diversity, and highlights how a new research network will address this barrier, especially as scientists race to find an effective COVID-19 vaccine.

Please tell us about yourself and your time in health care.

Thank you so much for having me. I'm looking forward to the discussion. Also, I should mention, I'm a big fan of the Pharmacy Learning Network. I'm actually a pharmacist, and I still receive the emails to my pharmacy email address. In particular, the advocacy for broadening and deepening the role of the pharmacist is particularly a passion point in my career. Thank you for that.

By way of background, I am a pharmacist by education. I have a pretty diverse background, first, direct-to-patient care, and then I did a postdoc fellowship in industry, then took on a full‑time role in industry where I also did some teaching in between.

In 2012, looking at the changes in the health care landscape and the growing role of technology, I wanted to further understand the intersection I suppose, between technology and human health care. Fast forward, I'm now the Chief Operating Officer at par8o. I've led the development of a few offerings.

Most recently, we decided to apply our experiences, or as some might say, our scar tissue, to building scalable tech and workflows to address inequity in access to clinical research, which is what brings us here today.

Can you talk a little bit about the recently released clinical trial patient recruitment service that connects health center patients with nearby clinical trials?

Yes, I would love to. We are laser‑focused on one goal, which is improving inequity in how patients access research. We do this by working with a broad network of health centers. Health centers in America treat 29 million patients a year, largely underserved minority patients who are often or most of the time, left out of the clinical research conversation.

We work with these health centers on their behalf to make a connection to clinical research nearby for their patients, just like any other care coordination event.

What's the importance of this service? How will it help improve research as scientists race to find a COVID‑19 vaccine?

I think it's fair to say that meaningful change in health care only happens when it has to. I think the COVID vaccine research and the inequity in access to that research, is just the perfect example of change that needs to happen. I'm personally very happy to be a part of that.

It's our most vulnerable patients, racial‑ethnic, and socioeconomic minorities who are getting diagnosed with and dying from COVID‑19 disproportionately. Yet, these patients are exactly the patients who have been left out of the research for a variety of reasons, but mainly it's just because they're not introduced to it.

The goal of vaccine research is to prove that the vaccine is safe and effective for the whole population who really needs it. While we were originally focused on rare diseases, we've since doubled down our efforts to work with these health centers to make sure that their patients have access to participate in the vaccine trials.

Ultimately, when vaccines become available, we know exactly how it will work in their population, the population who needs it most.

How can health care professionals such as pharmacists and other PCPs, help inform patients of these services?

What's interesting is the data shows that number one, patients most want to hear from their own provider about clinical research opportunities. Number two, that providers actually want to share relevant research opportunities with patients, but they just don't have the awareness.

par8o aims to address both of these, to improve the equity and access to research. I think we do this in a way that doesn't interrupt current workflows. We make it very simple for the health care professionals in their normal day to day operations to introduce research at the time that matters most, when they're providing care for patients.

Also, to make a little pharmacist plug here, we work with a network of 130 health centers across 1500 locations. We've gotten to know them very intimately. They're resource‑strapped and very mission‑oriented organizations that tend to have really, really innovative pharmacy models. I'll just make that little plug for pharmacists' role in health centers.

Will there be a challenge of willingness to participate in trials from patients? How can health care professionals help address these challenges?

We have a creed at par8o, where we say educate don't mandate. I think this applies for providers and patients. I think there's not only mistrust but a lack of understanding that's driving this inequity in access to research. We go above and beyond to make sure that we identify trials that really make sense for a given patient population.

We help identify patients who would actually be eligible and willing to participate and then make it a simple care coordination event. Something as simple as a provider would send a referral to cardiology. We make it as simple as that. I think it's fair to say health care providers play a really critical role in discussing treatment options that may include trials. We leverage that trust with patients and providers.

Can you discuss how you believe this service will help improve the future of care for patients?

I think if clinical trial participation ultimately represents the diversity of our nation and its patients, we'll have succeeded. A perfect example of this is, by 2050, I think it's something like 40% of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's will be minorities, Black or African American, and Hispanic patients, but yet only 5% of patients are minorities in the research today.

Alzheimer's is a great example. Just one of many, many examples where if we are able to make sure that the patients who will benefit from the research and the drugs being available are included in that research, I think we'll have succeeded.

In conclusion, is there anything else that you would like to add?

I just want to thank you for your time, and thanks so much for speaking with me today. I hope you can see that par8o is committed to improving health equity and access to research. And on a personal note, I'd love for more pharmacists to get involved.

Click here to learn more about par8o.

Melissa Opraseuth, PharmD, is the Chief Operating Officer at par8o, where she oversees the company’s corporate operations.

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