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Enabling Digital and Decentralised Solutions in Clinical Research

Writing decentralised clinical trials into the protocol!

Kamilla Posselt, Senior Director, Decentralised Clinical Trials Strategy, PPD Clinical Research Business, Thermo Fisher Scientific

In recent years clinical research trial designs have gradually started to change from fully paper and brickand-mortar sites (traditional trials) to digital-enabled designs utilizing decentralized solutions, which allow participant visits to be conducted remotely, rather than designated brick-and-mortar sites. In this article, we will spend time on the importance of embedding digital and decentralized solutions during early trial development.

In recent years, clinical research trial designs have started to change from fully paper and brick & mortar sites (traditional trials) to digital-enabled designs utilising decentralised solutions, which allow participant visits to be conducted remotely with some visits on site (hybrid design) or all visit decentralised from designated brickand-mortar sites (fully remote/ virtual design).

Moving from paper case report forms (CRF) to electronic data capture (EDC) was possibly the first gigantic technology leap and the first true test of the industry’s ability to adapt and change. Data management departments across pharmaceutical companies and clinical research organisations (CRO) strengthened their core capabilities to align with the shift to EDC and the increased volume of data being captured, collected, and curated. With the move to EDC, the clinical research associate (CRA) profile started to change from previously verifying all data on-site to reduced source data verification (SDV) with increasingly remote capabilities. Sponsors, investigators, and
study teams were — by collecting and trending real-time data during the trial — enabled to make better decisions to the benefit of the participants. In addition, the data helped successfully identify strategies that significantly improve efficiency in future clinical trials.

In parallel with EDC, the clinical outcome assessments (COA) followed the same path of digital enablement, moving from paper COA to an electronic version (eCOA), whether it be electronic patient-reported outcomes (ePROs) or electronic clinician-reported outcomes (eClinROs).

Wearables have been the new kids on the block pre-pandemic both as part of standard of care, as well as in clinical research. That’s been driven by innovative approaches to manage and monitor diseases both on-site and in the tranquility of the participant’s own home — 24/7, if needed. With technology evolving rapidly these technological advances make endpoint data collection in research much easier while reducing the participant’s discomfort of long on-site trial visits and travel time.

Clinical research technology platforms have also emerged, providing participant-facing apps and websites where you can build in or interface with some or all the previously mentioned solutions, as well as expanding to other research-related activities such as virtual training, electronic informed consent form (eICF), participant recruitment, engagement, visit reminders and concierges, etc. Implementing these platforms, the individual participant is given an even more active role in their own research journey, as they are responsible to enter their own subjective data directly into the designated  technology platforms. As with wearables, the technology platforms enable study staff (both clinical site staff and research study teams) to access data in real time and monitor the well-being of the participant remotely.

The recent pandemic served as a significant catalyst to enable even more research tasks to fit in to a digital or decentralised solution. These activities likely would have progressed to a digital and decentralised layout over time as technology, legislation and industry acceptance underpin the change. Among these tasks, consenting to participate in clinical research was included in the  “e-club” (e.g., eConsent/eSignature, eCOA, etc.) across most countries. Adoption of televisits was equally promoted and implemented to overcome the logistics of missing visits during lockdowns in addition to supplementing with in-home or mobile visits performed by health care providers (HCP). Both consenting and televisits are a prolongation of standard of care innovations, as many countries already had implemented solutions and pathways for academic sites and general practitioners to utilise these elements, and many countries already were engaging with HCPs in primary care, extending their patient treatment to take place at in-home settings.

Adoption of decentralised clinical trials (DCTs)

The PPD clinical research business of Thermo Fisher Scientific conducted a survey in 2021 among companies that outsource clinical research services or operations to CROs . The objectives of the study were to gain current insights into trends in the clinical trials market, including the changes in trials, participants and data driven by the impacts of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. The data also covers the expansion of adoption of decentralised clinical trials (DCTs) during the pandemic and the likelihood of continuing to use those trial models going forward; the importance of different technologies, tools, and solutions; and ways that the efficiency and integrity of DCTs can be improved.

The research study was global in scope (n=100), with all respondents working in pharma/ biopharma with respondents working in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63 per cent) reported currently using digital and DCT options for their clinical research.

As the pandemic has slowed, we have seen most pharma companies do not anticipate reverting back to traditional methods of clinical research or scaling back on innovation. This assumption was further supported by the respondents revealing that they had seen a clear shift from pre-pandemic adoption levels of clinical trials sponsored by their organisations. During the portion of the year studied in 2021, only 46 per cent were traditional, on-site trials, while 39 per cent were hybrid or digitally enabled and 15 per cent were fully decentralised/ virtual trials, a shift further enhanced when discussing trials planned for later in 2021 or 2022 (41 per cent, 42 per cent, 17 per cent, respectively).

The majority (58 per cent) believe they will continue using these new research models rather than revert to traditional models, and similar responses were given to a question about the future of specific trials in which hybrid or DCT strategies were implemented. The survey participants selected “replacing paper clinical outcome assessments with digital ones” and “remote site visits/monitoring” as both the top DCT strategies they had implemented and as the most important of the offered strategies. The participants also ranked the importance of a range of attributes of DCT solutions and ways to improve or change those solutions and shared feedback they have received from sites, clinicians, and study participants. More than three quarters (78 per cent) reported feeling that DCTs produce data of the same (or higher) quality than traditional trials and a willingness to be a first adopter for a new feature, product or platform introduced to support their trials.

Embedding digital and decentralised solutions in trial designs

A clinical research trial runs through defined sequential steps; starting with the development of the trial design and protocol followed by vendor selection and startup that includes trial design and technology setup and submissions. Approvals mark the end of submissions with the next steps being enrolment/recruitment, study maintenance and participant retention, through to database lock (DBL), statistical analysis and completing the clinical study report (CSR) and trial master file (TMF) closure. These steps may overlap each other, in addition to having multiple iterations These steps are  the same regardless of trial phase and the curriculum of assessments you wish to add to the trial’s schedule of assessments/ events (SoA/SoE). The SoA/SoE can be refined and adjusted, adding, or removing assessments as necessary if the trial design answers the research questions.

The clinical trial begins with the end in mind. This means that the whole process is designed keeping the deliverable in view and documented in the trial protocol. As a clinical trial is designed to answer the research question, the various trial functions partaking in the trial have their unique sub-processes in place designed to complete their functional deliverables/scope of work with focus on participant safety, quality, timeline, resources, and cost. For example, the data management process is designed to deliver an error-free, valid, and statistically sound database. To meet this objective, they start their process early, even before the finalisation of the protocol.

Most errors in clinical trials are a result of poor planning. Statistical methods cannot rescue design flaws. Thus, careful planning with clear risk assessment and prudence is crucial. Issues in trial conduct and analysis should be anticipated during trial design and thoughtfully addressed.

When opting for a dynamic clinical trial design, implementing digital and decentralised solutions, layers of complexity are being added throughout the trial steps that needs additional consideration, especially during the design phase, to ensure strong planning and successful implementation.

There is a misconception that it’s easy to add on any DCT component(s) post protocol development. Retrofitting DCT solutions was a necessity during the pandemic as there was no other choice to keep participants enrolled in clinical trials. Now, it’s time for change. We should be incorporating flexibility for the use of DCT solutions at the design stage.

When you add digital and decentralised components to your trial design, but still utilise the same approach to develop the protocol, setup and manage the trial, it can be compared to buying an electric bike, but still choosing to pedal uphill without using the bike’s motor to assist your peddling for a smoother, faster, and easier ride.

Bringing it together by design

With our survey results in mind, there is a clear appetite to continue evolving clinical research with implementation of digital and decentralised solutions. We are still in the early days, meaning that there is still a fair amount of learnings, change management required and limitations originating from individual country regulations, as well as the capabilities of the individual digital and decentralised providers.

Our survey metrics also identified that the vast majority of pharma companies (96 per cent) outsource operations or full clinical research to CROs. Most CROs have been first movers within the DCT space, understanding the necessity to engage with trial sponsors when implementing DCT by connecting technology or decentralised service providers to the overarching trial management plan and timelines.

Engaging CROs during the protocol development phase — using their full-service know-how, from clinical, safety, DCT and data delivery — can bridge the gap between the end-to-end study delivery, weaving in all the trial elements, including digital and decentralised solutions, and mapping out the full extended participant and data journey instead of having a piecemeal trial design layered on post-protocol development. Another benefit is having multiple services managed centrally. Without that central management and understanding of the various requirements of each digital and decentralised solution it can be difficult to build one encompassing trial management plan and timeline outlining all key deliverables, handoffs, predecessors, and successors between all trial services in scope. The risk then becomes the research questions not being answered appropriately.

Digital and decentralised considerations

There is a misconception that adding digital and decentralised solutions to a study is like adding EDC. To the contrary, there are many differences, with three key differentiators being: 1) EDC is not (yet) participant facing, making EDC a somewhat easier technology to implement, as it does not require translations per research country involved in the trial; 2) the EDC and the completion guidelines do not need (in most countries) to be added in the submission package/ or added in local language; and 3) authorities approve of the EDC approach.

Furthermore, the EDC model has been well tested over the years with sites and study teams well trained and familiar with the data capture and collection process, with dedicated data management, programmers, and statistician teams to configure the database and curate the data. Additionally, there are few EDC providers that share most of the market, meaning that both the industry as well as clinical research sites are well versed in their EDC layout, usage, and capabilities thus making it easier to deploy on trials in terms of timelines, resources, compliance, and training as processes are well-known and predefined.

We have established that all participant-facing solutions need to be translated, addressed in the ICF and submitted to the IRB/EC for its approval. What needs to be factored in when deploying a digital participant-facing platform/app/website that may contain eConsent, eCOA, connectivity to a wearable, visit notifications, televisits, IMP eDiary compliance and/or in-home visit eSource data is that they add substantial changes to and prolong the trial startup timelines. That is yet another reason to build in digital and decentralised strategies from the onset, because it allows you to map out what solutions are needed, allowed per country and how it is integrated with the other trial functions to ensure a seamless and early start of the trial setup.

Building a U.S. English digital participant-facing platform (app/website) takes between six and 12 weeks depending on complexity from specification build, through user acceptance testing (UAT) to provision of final screenshots to IRB/EC submission and approval. This timeline does not include the Google Play (Android)/Apple App Store (iOS) submission and release duration, which can take an additional two to four weeks. If your trial has multiple countries/languages, additional time needs to be allocated to cover translation of the U.S. final version, IRB/EC submission and approval, and the extra timeline for the Google/Apple app stores. These translations impact the submissions packages as the latter need to be coordinated to include all participantfacing material.

In parallel with the digital platform (site facing platform/eSource, participantfacing app/website) being configured (with input from data management and statistician, medical, HCP and clinical trial management) work needs to be done in terms of understanding the data integrations and entries, assessing how the data obtained by site, HCP and participant will be captured, collected, curated and eventually what data is being transferred to the EDC, frequency, data cleaning and querying process.

There are many different DCT design variations and providers to select from, which requires a thorough discussion with experts within full-service trial delivery during the synopsis phase before locking in the trial budget and protocol. This ensures you plan the right SoA/SoE and assess both the participant, site and data journey as well as the participant, site and study team burden.

The following is not an exhaustive list, but offers some key digital and decentralised considerations during protocol development to assess whether hybrid or fully virtual trial designs are feasible.

  • Endpoints/trial assessments: Identify if any of the assessments are compatible with a hybrid/fully remote model.
  • Participant profile: Have a high-level understanding of their challenges and limitations that they go through in their life with the current or chronic disease that they may have and identify if hybrid/fully remote is feasible for the participant.
  • IMP: Assess if IMP is safe and stable to be shipped, stored, and administered in a home setting and if it can be self-administered or needs to be administered by an HCP.
  • Recruitment: Understanding the recruitment funnel is key, especially as we become more virtual. Understanding where the participants are going to come from and the typical catchment area for an individual site. Are recruitment engines and materials needed? Identify advocacy groups you may need to engage with to develop the best study design that supports the research question. Consider if the full remote trial design facilitates expected recruitment rate.
  • Operational logistics: Understand if hybrid or fully remote trial designs can be operationalized in terms of country regulations as well as providers. Assess if the operational strategy improves recruitment and retention and results in a low burden not only to participants but also to sites. The sites’ ability to manage and navigate the DCT design needs to be considered and it must be easy for them to manage to prevent site resistance, especially if the DCT elements are being added as optional or at the PI’s discretion.
  • Understand the data monitoring: If the data is stored in the cloud, does it lean toward remote SDV or remote SDR, by whom and is a change required in the profile performing data review (moving from CRA to CDA).
  • Data: Understand the data flow, monitoring, architecture, and digital connectivity between the DCT solutions. Assess if data trigger points and thresholds need to be established to help the investigator and medical teams monitor safety data. Understand the data privacy policies and data transfer/storage in selected countries.

Adding DCTs can be a challenging endeavour, especially if not done right

To summarise, most errors in clinical trials are a result of poor planning. The lack of planning and strategising with a piecemeal DCT plug-and-play mentality can result in increased trial budgets, missed deadlines, quality issues, scope creep, and poor adoption. As such, digital and decentralised solutions need to be designed to link with the full end-toend operational trial management team/delivery.

In preparing for the trials of today and tomorrow, the timing of what, if, and how digital and decentralised solutions are selected as part of the trial strategy should be determined as early as possible in the protocol development stage to minimise trial risks and errors. Early considerations need to be made to identify if, where, and how the various trial assessments can be conducted in a more participant-centric approach, either on-site or remotely, as part of the trial concept/synopsis development and integrated into the final protocol.


  • PPD 2021-2022 Decentralized Clinical Trials Industry Report:
  • Scott R. Evans, Ph.D., “Fundamentals of clinical trial design” per cent20objective% per cent20of%per cent20clinical% per cent20trials% per cent20is% per cent20to% per cent20establish,for% per cent20bias%per cent20and% per cent20confounding% per cent20and% per cent20by% per cent20minimizing% per cent20variation.

--Issue 49--

Author Bio

Kamilla Posselt

Kamilla Posselt serves as senior director of decentralized clinical trials strategy for the PPD clinical research business of Thermo Fisher Scientific. In that role, she is responsible for developing digital and decentralised enabled trial strategies and innovations through a variety of different methodologies. She has more than 20 years of clinical research experience.

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