Can Digital Technology Revolutionize Clinical Trial Management?

SPH alumna Ching Tian is changing how clinical trials are run through remote participation.
Ching Tian

Ching Tian (MS ’92), is the chief innovation officer at Emmes, a global clinical research organization. Her big goal is to make clinical trials more cost-effective through advances in digital technology. The biggest stumbling block for clinical trials is the recruitment and retention of patients. Tian and her team are reformatting trial design so that patients can participate remotely, leading to better retention and huge cost savings for research organizations.

What are “Decentralized Clinical Trials,” and how can they help patient outcomes?

Decentralized Clinical Trials (DCT) have a lot to do with the operations of the study. If you think of pre-pandemic healthcare, the standard was to go to a doctor’s office for all visits. It was the same with clinical research and trials; all participant assessments happened on-site.

Nowadays, going to a research site is super burdensome and patient recruitment and retention are two of the most persistent, common challenges of the clinical research process. That’s what really drives the concept of DCT: How do we reduce the burden on patients so we can get a higher rate of participation? We need to break down the geographic barriers of trial participation, making it more accessible for people in areas without nearby healthcare facilities that are collecting research. This could increase patient retention and reduce how many participants you need if the dropout rate is lower, leading to cost efficiencies and cleaner data.

“Everyone’s life is becoming more convenient through digital solutions. People are used to convenience and expect the same in research.”

Ching Tian

How would remote participation in trials work?

We need to change the assumption that patients need to come to a site to participate in a clinical trial. Instead, we can deliver medications to participants instead of requiring a site visit; do assessments through telehealth; and even send home-health nurses to participants when in-person interactions, like collecting blood samples, are required. If you have a solution set up properly, you can work with a distributed team of healthcare professionals to assist with the trial which vastly reduces the burden on patients.

We’re only at the very beginning of this transformation, but it’s here to stay. Everyone’s life is becoming more convenient through digital solutions. People are used to convenience and expect the same in research.

What are your goals in your new role as the Chief Innovation Officer at Emmes?

Emmes is in a unique spot that supports both public health research and commercial biopharma research. We share best practices between the two sectors, including how public health research can benefit from scalable solutions developed on the commercial side. Another area of focus is developing a technology infrastructure established to support data sharing as people become more decentralized. We are also focused on transforming operations from site-centric to patient-centric and how we can collectively support operations at scale.

How did your experience at SPH help launch and shape your career?

I absolutely think biostatistics is the best program ever! It’s such an intuitive program with practical applications. I had wonderful research opportunities at SPH, including a bone marrow transplant program and an AIDS clinical trial program. Both opportunities developed my technical skills and really prepared me for the job market. My very first job I got hired into was for another AIDS trial program sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The work I did in SPH was extremely relevant for that job, because I already had the knowledge and skills they were looking for. I had a wonderful experience at SPH, and my time there gave me a foundation to solve clinical data problems over the last three decades.


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