Streamlined COVID research process reduces patient confusion; improves working conditions for hospital staff and researchers

With medical researchers continuing to delve into COVID-19 patient clinical trials, many hospitals have become overwhelmed by the sheer number of studies being undertaken — leading to patient and staff confusion.

But things are running smoothly at the University of Alberta Hospital, thanks to a streamlined patient recruitment process, developed in partnership with the Northern Alberta Clinical Trials and Research Centre (NACTRC).

“It’s been one of those perfect storms with lots of research on one study population. That doesn’t happen often,” explained Dr. Lawrence Richer, NACTRC Centre Director, and Vice-Dean of Research with UAlberta. “It was impossible for physicians to keep track of the number of studies.”

In an effort to quell the chaos, NACTRC worked with multiple COVID in-patient wards at UAlberta to create and fund a centralized research approach and established the COVID-19 Research Coordinating Committee – a group of invested clinicians and hospital administrators providing decision-making for study collaboration.

The new process has reduced the taxing nature of the previous study free-for-all, according to Dr. Wendy Sligl, program director of Critical Care Medicine with UAlberta. Sligl, who approached NACTRC to develop a central research team that could identify and screen patients for all available studies.

“The wards feel much less overwhelmed; they have built a relationship with our team,” Sligl said, adding the process came just in time, as research teams were at risk of being shut out from hospital wards, due to the ineffective way in which studies were being handled. “Without this central research team, researchers would not have the same access to patients.”

Of the 106 patients who have been screened since the program launched in early-December 2020, 47 have consented to taking part in nine studies focussing on intervention, observation, and specimen collection. More cohesion in COVID trial patient recruitment also meant the creation of a “standard operating procedure” for hospital units, said Breanne Stewart, a clinical trials project lead with UAlberta.

“It’s made it that much easier for the staff,” said Stewart, who played an integral role in the creation of the system and its processes. “The feedback has been that it’s clear, they’re on board, and happy to work with us and it’s helped clear up misconceptions around eligibility for multiple studies.”

One of the main hurdles in establishing the process has been funding; but plans are in place for a costing approach to solve that problem for the long term.

“NACTRC has kindly supported this central recruitment team by way of coordinator support, but with a cost-recovery model in place,” said Sligl. “Those studies that can afford to contribute funds are expected to. Moving forward, we hope to have a transparent and detailed funding framework in place.”

According to Sligl, the recruitment process should benefit the community on a larger scale as well, with the University of Alberta Hospital being able to contribute to COVID research more effectively and potentially improve patient outcomes.

“The university’s academic mission is furthered through this process, and we hope this will serve as a model for future collaboration and centralization among researchers,” she said.

Since the NACTRC–University process launched, some doctors have requested the streamlined approach to patient trials be implemented beyond COVID, and applied to further research areas.

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