In an effort to surmount the growing challenges of patient recruitment for clinical trials, Pfizer is setting up an online community in collaboration with a pioneer in privacy-enhanced internet search technology.

The partnership addresses in particular the privacy concerns that are regarded as a key barrier to patient enrolment. A study commissioned by the US Institute of Medicine found that the leading impediment to trial participation among aware patients is fear that their health information will not remain confidential, noted Pfizer and Private Access, the US-based company engaged in ensuring safe internet access to sensitive personal information such as medical records.

According to the new partners, their site will be the first to focus on patient privacy rights in seeking to connect patients, physicians and researchers with tailored information, tools and technology “that will lead to more informed decisions about patient care, including clinical trial participation industry-wide”.

The new platform and online community will be rolled out in phases, starting late this year. Pfizer and Private Access aim to bring a wide range of other partners on board, including clinical trial sponsors, patient advocacy groups, and technology providers. The site will also encourage social networking on the clinical trial experience.

Private Access’ patented technology enables patients to control who has access to all or part of their personal health information, and for what purposes. “By granting ‘private access’ only to researchers focused on the conditions that interest them, patients can be more quickly and precisely matched to appropriate clinical trials while simultaneously protecting their confidential personal health information,” the new partners explained.

Privacy concerns are not the only obstacle to trial recruitment. As Pfizer and Patient Access pointed out, nearly 85% of patients in a recent survey said they were unaware clinical trials were a possible treatment option, while 31% of the physicians surveyed did not refer patients to clinical trials due to, among other things, lack of information.

To make matters worse, the volume of clinical trials is increasing and study protocols are getting more complex. The cost of finding and enrolling patients for trials more than doubled between 2000 and 2005, and continues to rise, the partners observed.

“Many patients who could benefit from participation in clinical trials don’t enrol in them because they are not aware that potentially relevant research is underway or they cannot find a specific trial to meet their needs; others worry that they will lose control of their health information,” commented Dr Freda Lewis-Hall, Pfizer’s chief medical officer.

“With unprecedented collaboration among key groups, Pfizer and Private Access believe we can build the pre-eminent online clinical trial community to be used industry-wide to share knowledge while giving patients the confidence and control to share their health information.”