Duncan Arbour, SVP Innovation, Syneos Health Communications Europe,  on the need for being faster to what really matters - finding the right  protocols for your patients

Lately, readers of the pharma industry press would be forgiven for believing that technology (whether that’s ‘big data’, ‘artificial intelligence’ or any latest start-up offer) had now solved many of the recruitment and engagement challenges facing clinical trials. Site selection? Patient and investigator recruitment? Easy as Uber – just press the right buttons and your targets are met. Technology is wonderful.

This promise of technology is particularly seductive in therapy areas such as oncology, where the potential of new advances in immunotherapies and personalised medicine has led to an exuberant rush of pharma and biotech investment. This has led in turn to a situation where there’s a surfeit of studies, but a shortage of patients: exactly the kind of problem that tech companies like to solve.

And the technology is great. In the US in particular, a wealth of databases can provide insight into criteria such as top prescribers by indication, and in our own work we typically supplement this by applying algorithms that can further prioritise potential sites and investigators based on factors such as experience, capabilities, facilities and performance history.

We’ve even been able to use data-driven approaches to determine whether to activate sites that are already seeing patients, or whether it’s necessary to activate other sites that may not yet be seeing patients but which may be more capable of handling the complexity and rigour of the protocol. In other words, answering the question of whether it’s preferable to ‘go where the patients are’ based on their progression through the treatment pathway or to ‘drive patients where you want them to be’ – in effect disrupting their treatment pathway.

But while approaches like this highlight how the smart application of data can accelerate and optimise site selection and targeting, these uses of easily available data are rapidly becoming just table stakes for sponsors and their partners. The fact is that driving enduring differentiation and advantage for a particular study requires more than just hard data on patients’ treatment pathways; it also needs an equal focus on the very human process of understanding patients’ emotional pathways – the nuances of their personal disease experience and the uniqueness of each patient’s ability to cope both physically and mentally with their treatment options.

Compared to planning informed by hard data alone, this is very much a road not travelled by many sponsors – in part due to requiring skillsets and capabilities such as behavioural science and service design which don’t typically live within traditional CRO partners (though which full service partners such as Syneos Health regularly apply to meet engagement challenges within wider commercial, communications and consumer environments).

But for sponsors who take this road of complementing hard data with deep emotional insights, the reward offers the best way to win in crowded therapy area landscapes such as oncology: not just to be faster in finding the right patients for your protocols, but to be faster to what really matters – to finding the right protocols for your patients, wherever and whoever they are.