Under both the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule and the Common Rule, “research” is defined as “a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.” This is a broad definition that may include biomedical research, epidemiological studies,1 and health services research,2 as well as studies of behavioral, social, and economic factors that affect health.
Perhaps the most familiar form of health research is the clinical trial, in which patients volunteer to participate in studies to test the efficacy and safety of new medical interventions. But an increasingly large portion of health research is now information based. A great deal of research entails the analysis of data and biological samples that were initially collected for diagnostic, treatment, or billing purposes, or that were collected as part of other research projects, and are now being used for new research purposes. This secondary3 use of data is a common research approach in fields such as epidemiology, health services research, and public health research, and includes analysis of patterns of occurrences, determinants, and natural history of disease; evaluation of health care interventions and services; drug safety surveillance; and some genetic and social studies (Lowrance, 2002; Lowrance and Collins, 2007).
The Importance of Health Research
Like privacy, health research has high value to society. It can provide important information about disease trends and risk factors, outcomes of treatment or public health interventions, functional abilities, patterns of care, and health care costs and use. The different approaches to research provide complementary insights. Clinical trials can provide important information about the efficacy and adverse effects of medical interventions by controlling the variables that could impact the results of the study, but feedback from real-world clinical experience is also crucial for comparing and improving the use of drugs, vaccines, medical devices, and diagnostics. For example, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of a drug for a particular indication is based on a series of controlled clinical trials, often with a few hundred to a few thousand patients, but after approval it may be used by millions of people in many different contexts. Therefore, tracking clinical experience with the drug is important for identifying relatively rare adverse effects and for determining the effectiveness in different populations or in various circumstances. It is also vital to record and assess experience in clinical practice in order to develop guidelines for best practices and to ensure high-quality patient care.
Collectively, these forms of health research have led to significant discoveries, the development of new therapies, and a remarkable improvement in health care and public health.4 Economists have found that medical research can have an enormous impact on human health and longevity, and that the resulting increased productivity of the population contributes greatly to the national economy (Hatfield et al., 2001; Murphy and Topel, 1999) in addition to the individual benefits of improved health. If the research enterprise is impeded, or if it is less robust, important societal interests are affected.
The development of Herceptin as a treatment for breast cancer is a prime example of the benefits of research using biological samples and patient records (Box 3-1) (Slamon et al., 1987). Many other examples of findings from medical records research have changed the practice of medicine as well. Such research underlies the estimate that tens of thousands of Americans die each year from medical errors in the hospital, and research has provided valuable information for reducing these medical errors by implementing health information technology, such as e-prescribing (Bates et al., 1998; IOM, 2000b). This type of research also has documented that disparities in health care and lack of access to care in inner cities and rural areas result in poorer health outcomes (Mick et al., 1994). Furthermore, medical records research has demonstrated that preventive services (e.g., mammography) substantially reduce mortality and morbidity at reasonable costs (Mandelblatt et al., 2003), and has established a causal link between the nursing shortage and patient health outcomes by documenting that patients in hospitals with fewer registered nurses are hospitalized longer and are more likely to suffer complications, such as urinary tract infections and upper gastrointestinal bleeding (Needleman et al., 2002). These findings have all informed and influenced policy decisions at the national level. As the use of electronic medical records increases, the pace of this form of research is accelerating, and the opportunities to generate new knowledge about what works in health care are expanding (CHSR, 2008).
Examples of Important Findings from Medical Database Research. Herceptin and breast cancer: Data were collected from a cohort of more than 9,000 breast cancer patients whose tumor specimens were consecutively received at the University (more...)
Advances in health information technology are enabling a transformation in health research that could facilitate studies that were not feasible in the past, and thus lead to new insights regarding health and disease. As noted by the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics, “Clinically rich information is now more readily available, in a more structured format, and able to be electronically exchanged throughout the health and health care continuum. As a result, the information can be better used for quality improvement, public health, and research, and can significantly contribute to improvements in health and health care for individuals and populations” (NCVHS, 2007a). The informatics grid recently developed with support from the National Cancer Institute (Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid, or caBIG) is an example of a how information technologies can facilitate health research by enabling broader sharing of health data while still ensuring regulatory compliance and protecting patient privacy (Box 3-2).
caBIG (Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid). The National Cancer Institute’s caBIG Data Sharing and Intellectual Capital Workspace’s mission is to enable all constituencies in the cancer community—including researchers, physicians, (more...)
Science today is also changing rapidly and becoming more complex, so no single researcher or single site can bring all the expertise to develop and validate medical innovations or to ensure their safety. Thus, efficient sharing of information between institutions has become even more important than in previous eras, when there were fewer new therapies introduced. The expansion of treatment options, as well as the escalating expense of new therapies, mandates greater scrutiny of true effectiveness,5 once efficacy has been demonstrated. This requires registries of patient characteristics, outcomes, and adverse events. Large populations are required to facilitate comparison of patient populations and to calculate risk/benefit estimates. For example, INTERMACS6 (Interagency Registry for Mechanically Assisted Circulatory Support) is a national registry for patients who are receiving mechanical circulatory support device therapy to treat advanced heart failure. This registry was devised as a joint effort of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, FDA, clinicians, scientists and industry representatives. Analysis of the data collected is expected to facilitate improved patient evaluation and management while aiding in better device development. Registry results are also expected to influence future research and facilitate appropriate regulation and reimbursement of such devices. Similarly, the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO),7 an international consortium of health care professionals and scientists who focus on the development and evaluation of novel therapies for support of failing organ systems, maintains a registry of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation and other novel forms of organ system support. Registry data are used to support clinical practice and research, as well as regulatory agencies. Another example is the database developed by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) for the collection, storage, analysis and publication of data pertaining to the patient waiting list, organ matching, and transplants.8 Launched in 1999, this secure Internet-based system contains data regarding every organ donation and transplant event occurring in the United States since 1986.
Information-based research, such as research using health information databases has many advantages (reviewed by Lowrance, 2002). It is often faster and less expensive than experimental studies; it can analyze very large sets of data and may detect unexpected phenomena or differences among subpopulations that might not be included in a controlled experimental study; it can often be undertaken when controlled trials are simply not possible for ethical, technical, or other reasons, and it can be used to study effectiveness of a specific test or intervention in clinical practice, rather than just the efficacy as determined by a controlled experimental study. It can also reexamine data accrued in other research studies, such as clinical trials, to answer new questions quickly and inexpensively. However, information-based research does have limitations. Often it has less statistical rigor than controlled clinical studies because it lacks scientific control over the original data collection, quality, and format that prospective experimental research can dictate from the start. In addition to these scientific limitations, because of its relational and often distant physical separation from the data subjects, and the sheer volume of the records involved, obtaining individual consent for the research can be difficult or impossible.
Advances in information-based medical research could also facilitate the movement toward personalized medicine, which will make health research more meaningful to individuals. The goal of personalized medicine is to tailor prevention strategies and treatments to each individual based on his/her genetic composition and health history. In spite of the strides made in improving health through new treatments, it is widely known that most drugs are effective in only a fraction of patients who have the condition for which the drug is indicated. Moreover, a small percentage of patients are likely to have adverse reactions to drugs that are found to be safe for the majority of the population at the recommended dose. Both of these phenomena are due to variability in the patient population. Revolutionary advances in the study of genetics and other markers of health and disease are now making it possible to identify and study these variations, and are leading to more personalized approaches to health care—that is, the ability to give “the appropriate drug, at the appropriate dose, to the appropriate patient, at the appropriate time.” Achieving the goals of personalized medicine will lead to improvements in both the effectiveness and the safety of medical therapies.
Public Perceptions of Health Research
A number of studies have been undertaken to gauge the public’s attitude toward research and the factors that influence individuals’ willingness to participate in research. The surveys reviewed in this chapter focus on interventional clinical trials. A review of survey questions to gauge the public willingness to allow their medical records to be used in research can be found in Chapter 2.
The Public Values Health Research
A number of studies suggest that most Americans have a positive view of medical research and believe that research is beneficial to society. A recent Harris poll found that nearly 80 percent of respondents were interested in health research findings, consistent with previous survey results (Westin, 2007). A study in 2005 compiled data from 70 state surveys and 18 national surveys and found that the majority of Americans believe maintaining world leadership in health-related research is important. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said that it is very important, and 17 percent said that it is somewhat important. Only 4 percent of Americans reported that maintaining world leadership in health-related research is not impor tant (Woolley and Propst, 2005). Similar results were found in a 2007 survey—76 percent of respondents reported that science plays a very important role in our health, and 78 percent reported that science plays a very important role in our competitiveness (Research!America, 2007).
The Virginia Commonwealth University 2004 Life Sciences Survey also found that most Americans have a positive view of research. In this study, 90 percent of respondents agreed that developments in science have made society better; 92 percent reported that “scientific research is essential for improving the quality of human lives”; and 84 percent agreed that “the benefits of scientific research outweigh the harmful results” (NSF, 2006).
Overall Experience When Participating in Research
Little is known about the attitudes of individuals who have actually participated in medical research. However, the available evidence suggests that most research participants have positive experiences. A recent Harris Poll found that 13 percent of respondents had participated in some form of health research, and 87 percent of those felt comfortable about their experience (Westin, 2007). In a study focused on cancer, 93 percent of respondents who participated in research reported it as a very positive experience; 76 percent said they would recommend participation in a clinical trial to someone with cancer. Most physicians surveyed in this study stated that they believe clinical trial participants receive the best possible care, and have outcomes at least as good as patients receiving standard cancer treatment (Comis et al., 2000). Another study found that 55 percent of individuals who participated in a research study would be willing to participate again in a future research study (Trauth et al., 2000).
Willingness to Participate in Research
Public opinion surveys indicate that a majority of Americans are willing to participate in clinical research studies. In 2001, a compilation of studies commissioned by Research!America found that 63 percent of Americans would be willing to participate in a clinical research study (Woolley and Propst, 2005). This percentage has remained stable over time. A 2007 Research!America survey also found that 63 percent of Americans would be very likely to participate in a clinical research study if asked (Research!America, 2007); 68 percent of respondents reported that their desire to improve their own health or the health of others was a major factor in deciding whether to participate in a clinical research project (Research!America, 2007).
Other surveys also suggest that willingness to participate in research focused on specific diseases is quite high. In one survey, the percentage of respondents indicating a willingness to participate in a medical research study was 88 percent for cancer, 86 percent for heart disease, 83 percent for a noncurable fatal disease, 79 percent for addiction, 78 percent for depression, and 76 percent for schizophrenia (Trauth et al., 2000). Respondents with greater knowledge of how research is conducted were more willing to participate (Trauth et al., 2000). Another study found that 8 of 10 Americans would consider participating in a clinical trial if faced with cancer. More than two-thirds of respondents said they would be willing to participate in a clinical trial designed to prevent cancer (Comis et al., 2000).
Americans also seem to be very supportive of medical research that relies on genetic data. A 2007 survey found that 93 percent of Americans supported the use of genetic testing if the information collected is used by researchers to find new ways to diagnose, prevent, or treat disease (Genetics & Public Policy Center, 2007). Two separate surveys found that 66 percent of Americans would be willing to donate their genetic material for medical research (Genetics & Public Policy Center, 2007; Research!America, 2007). However, despite this apparent positive view of genetic research, 92 percent of Americans reported they were concerned about their genetic information being used in a “harmful way” (Genetics & Public Policy Center, 2007).
Many factors, in addition to concerns about privacy and confidentiality (Genetics & Public Policy Center, 2007; Research!America, 2007), may influence an individual’s willingness to participate in a medical research study. The Trauth survey found that individuals with higher income levels, with a college or graduate degree, or with children were more likely to participate in research. Age affected willingness to participate: 57 percent of respondents ages 18–34 were willing to participate in research, but only 31 percent of respondents ages 65 or older were willing (Trauth et al., 2000).
Other factors that potentially influence an individual’s willingness to participate in research are race and ethnicity. It is well documented that minorities participate in health research at a much lower percentage than white Americans. Many cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic barriers could be responsible for this difference (Giuliano et al., 2000), and study results have been variable on this issue. Several studies suggest that the low participation rates by racial and ethnic minority groups are due to their strong distrust of the medical research community compared to the general population (Braunstein et al., 2008; Corbie-Smith et al., 1999; Farmer et al., 2007; Grady et al., 2006; Shavers et al., 2002).
However, other evidence suggests that the low percentage of minorities participating in research is related to minority groups’ lack of access to the research community (Brown et al., 2000; Wendler et al., 2006; Williams and Corbie-Smith, 2006). Thus, it is likely that the low number of minority individuals participating in medical research is at least partly due to recruitment techniques that are ineffective for minority populations.
The survey that focused on cancer research suggests that one of the main reasons why individuals do not participate in research is lack of knowledge about the availability of clinical trials. In a survey of nearly 6,000 cancer patients, 85 percent said they were unaware of the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial. Respondents who did participate said they did so because of one of the following beliefs: (1) trials provide access to the best quality of care (76 percent), (2) their participation would benefit future cancer patients (72 percent), (3) they would receive newer and better treatment (63 percent), and (4) participation would get them more care and attention (40 percent) (Comis et al., 2000).
A recommendation from a physician can also impact participation. In the United States, 48 percent of respondents to one survey reported that a physicians’ recommendation would be a major factor in deciding whether to take part in a research study. Nearly three-fourths of respondents also cited an institution’s reputation as a key factor to consider when deciding whether to participate in a study (Research!America, 2007). Twenty percent of respondents in an Italian public survey indicated that the presence of a physician as a reference during a research study influenced their willingness to participate (Mosconi et al., 2005).
In sum, surveys indicate that the vast majority of Americans have a positive view of medical research, believe that research is beneficial to society, and are interested in health research findings. Although little is known about the attitudes of individuals who have actually participated in medical research, the available evidence suggests that most research participants have positive experiences. Surveys also suggest that a majority of Americans are willing to participate in clinical research studies. Similar to the findings in Chapter 2, surveys indicate that many factors, in addition to concerns about privacy and confidentiality, can potentially influence an individual’s willingness to participate in medical research, including the type of research and personal characteristics such as health status, age, education, and race. Notably, respondents with greater knowledge of how research is conducted were more willing to participate in research.
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